James Brown | Live at the Apollo (May 1963)
Soul – 31:31
“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy.”
Gigs can be a spectacle to behold. Dancers shimmy their way across the stage, their bodies creating wondrous shapes as they spin from one side to the other; costumes accentuate their lithe moves, adding everything from colour and sparkle to sophistication and effortless cool; the sets are lit by endless displays of warm lighting; and the lead singer, dripping in charisma, draws it all together, resulting in something far greater than the music alone. There is more to just the sound in the staging of some live shows. All of which makes it hard to translate a live gig on to a record – how do you convey the overall experience on a medium which relies purely on sound and nothing else?
It is a problem which plagues James Brown’s first – and most famous – live album, Live at the Apollo. James was the consummate performer. It is not for nothing that he was described as the hardest working man in music; for Brown it wasn’t just about standing in front of a crowd and singing his hits. He would wear elaborate costumes (all the while insisting his backing singers dressed in tuxedos), and even had an entire routine involving being wrapped in a cape as part of one of his numbers. On top of this, he would incorporate dance steps into his performance, choreographing intense routines for him to break into as he sang. He even once said that his aim was to make the audience as exhausted as he was by the end of a concert. All of which makes it hard to get a true sense of the experience of seeing Brown in the flesh when all you have is the audio recording of his performance; from the start, you are lacking an essential ingredient in the guise of the visuals.
In some ways, Live at the Apollo does not help James Brown in the claim that he works hard; the entire album lasts just 30 minutes (it takes me longer to write a blog post!). Add into the fact that there are numerous breaks between the songs and you are suddenly left with a live performance that has the named singer only taking up two-thirds of the entire recording. Call me picky but a 20 minute act doesn’t seem like a particularly arduous workout. Indeed, if anyone deserves the accolade, it should surely be the backing band, who play throughout the entire show without a break, sounding tight throughout. There is a playfulness and energy to their performance which is infectious, helping to push the show along and keep the crowd excited (screams can be heard puncturing the music throughout the half-hour running time). Add to this Brown’s backing group, The Famous Flames, and it seems the Godfather of Soul has little to do.
Another problem that I have with Brown is the lack of variety to his lyrics in a song. Most of the tracks seem to consist of a single line or two being repeated over and over again; there is no complexity or soul-searching lyrics, but merely repetition, occasionally broken up by a grunt or a scream. I admit he has a powerful voice; songs like Lost Someone display his ability to its full extent. But there needs to be more than simply screams; he comes across as some sort of over-the-top American evangelist, constantly shouting at his congregation ‘Can I get a witness’ rather than a singer. It means that, quite quickly, the tracks begin to roll into one. It comes to something when the instrumental breaks are the moments you find yourself waiting for in order to get some variety. Given that this is the second live album by a young black artist in the space of three album reviews, Sam Cooke certainly blows James Brown out of the water.
Brown was a hard man to work for, insisting perfection from his backing vocalists and band. He was known to fine those who displeased him – whether it was from turning up late, failing to shine their shoes sufficiently or singing a duff note. He would even incorporate certain hand movements into his dancing, to let those on stage his displeasure immediately, even if it was mid-concert. Perhaps if I was able to watch the show rather than simply hear it, it would make more sense and I would see what the fuss is about. However, as a solely audio recording, it lacks the punch it presumably had when performed in the flesh. Based on this alone, it seems more of a throw-away moment than an historic one, and leaves me feeling exhausted with disappointment rather than exhilaration.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Live at the Apollo here:
Next time: Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto