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James Brown: Double Dynamite
There's no disputing James Brown's place in modern music history; quite simply, the man was one of the masters. His rhythm and blues recordings have more than stood the test of time, but as strong as Brown was in the studio, it was common knowledge that his live shows were on another level entirely. Brown strutted, danced, screamed, and poured his considerable soul into his live shows, more than earning his reputation as "the hardest-working man in show business," given considerable support by the tight backing bands (most notably the JBs) and stage crews that made up the "James Brown Revue".
His live performances were captured frequently on vinyl (most notably on the smash 1963 Live At The Apollo LP and on other records like Sex Machine and Say It Live and Loud; there's also a marvelous bootleg recording of his 1974 performance in Zaire as a prelude to Ali's "Rumble In The Jungle") but not often enough on film. He's in the notoriously hard-to-see T.A.M.I. Show, and brief pieces of the Zaire concert are seen in the documentary When We Were Kings, but until earlier this year, that was about it. Then Rhino released the must-have three-disc set I Got The Feelin': James Brown in the 60's , which featured two electrifying full performances from 1968 at the Apollo and in Boston, where his concert helped diffuse the exploding tensions after Martin Luther King's assassination (events documented on the set's third disc). If you haven't seen it, do so immediately.
So it is perhaps just a misfortune of timing that the new disc James Brown: Double Dynamite! comes so close on the heels of that excellent set. While the aforementioned films and recordings capture Brown at the height of his powers, the two concerts collected here come from the 1980s, when he was trying to package his old-school R&B sensibilities into a more disco-and-funk driven-sound. These two shows are worth seeing, but we're not catching the man at his best.
The disc inexplicably puts the newer and lesser of the two shows first, a 1985 show at the Chastain Park Stadium in Atlanta. Performing with the backing of "The Soul G's", this is a lesser-energy Brown who mostly stands at the microphone, singing and bopping along. He doesn't move around too much, and we can clearly see that he has past his prime, but when he kicks into a high-energy, sped-up version of "Get On the Good Foot" or "Get Up Offa That Thing," damned if it ain't infectious.
The highlight of the show is "Papa's Got A Brand-New Bag," which is simply a show-stopper, and (though a little late in the game, at 45 minutes), JB finally busts some moves. You wonder what he's been waiting for, but it's thrilling nonetheless. The usual elements of a live Brown show are there, from the back-and-forth with the band and MC to the famous "cape routine", captured here in all their glory.
The Atlanta show was clearly taped for television (more on that later), and is neither shot not edited very imaginatively; the cameras mostly keep their distance, staying in a few extended wide and medium shots and mostly alternating between them with little variance. It documents the event, yes, but doesn't do much to convey any excitement.
The disc's second show is a better one, as Brown and the JBs perform at New York's notorious Studio 54 in 1980. Many of the same songs are performed, though more energetically, and the 54 show hits a couple of cuts that are noticeably absent from the Atlanta gig, including "Sex Machine" and "I Got The Feelin'". More importantly, the intimacy of the venue puts the cameras much closer to the action, so there's more variety to the photography here. Brown is in undeniably better form, his singing more soulful and his dancing more present, and though the Soul G's in Atlanta are a pretty tight ensemble, the JBs are a better backing band.
Those improvements aside, this is still not classic James Brown. But with the dearth of footage from his greatest period, these shows are close enough to at least warrant a look.
Mostly bad news here--not to put too fine a point on it, but these shows look pretty bad. Both concerts appear to have been originally recorded for television, so the analog video image comes with all of the expected softness, chroma noise, and occasional comet trails. The Atlanta show is the better looking of the two; in Studio 54, the intense saturation of the club lights piles additional color bleeding and edge enhancement to the list of video woes.
While much of the trouble is due to the source materials, there is also some noticeable compression artifacting that could have possibly been minimized if the distributor had sprung for a dual-layer instead of single-layer presentation.
The audio is a bit of a mixed bag. The disc trumpets a DTS mix and a 5.1 surround track, but the audio for both concerts pretty much blasts loud from all channels, with very little separation. I couldn't hear much difference between the straight-forward 2.0 stereo mix and the other channels, and there's surprisingly little happening in the subwoofer for a show with this much funky bass.
But, in the interest of fairness, it should be noted that 2.0 stereo is good enough for Brown's CDs, so we beggars probably shouldn't be choosers.
Not much of note here--there's a text Biography and Discography, as well as a Slideshow of album covers, magazine covers, and concert posters. All have music accompaniment, and that's about it.
I'm a big James Brown fan, so I can't deny that I enjoyed James Brown: Double Dynamite!; the shows are fun, the bands are sharp, and Brown is always a joy to watch (even in the less energetic Atlanta performance). My reservations about the quality of the presentation are genuine, but the fact that we even have these concerts makes a lot of their flaws forgivable. Fans will want to pick it up (but only if they already own the Rhino set); everyone else should probably just Rent It.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.