James Brown- Boston ’68

This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day I was fortunate to attend this event at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Yepp, his juice is timeless. You’ve probably heard a wisely-aged face go on about how he was the greatest performer of all time, and it’s hard to find evidence that they are incorrect. During the music industry’s greatest era, he is known as the best performer. Creating hits from 1956-1976 (before the industry began catering to disco, hip-hop and eventually video-driven acts) his music was a constant presence. And though many, many great artists recorded during this time, you’d be hard pressed to find a greater showman.

Brown’s Boston concert was scheduled on April 5th, 1968. Tragically, Dr. King had been assassinated the day before. Cities with large African-American populations were in understandable upheaval and Boston was no exception. Brown negotiated a deal to allow WGBH’s (the local TV station) cameras into the Boston Garden to film the performance and broadcast it as many times as they’d like in hopes to keep people off of the streets. Documentarian  David Leaf (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) made  The Night James Brown Saved Boston to highlight the social impact this historic concert provided.

The WGBH footage was preserved and Alamo Drafthouse is able to screen it from time to time. To put Brown’s zeal, aura, mojo, JUICE in perspective, the ’68 film crew (by today’s standards) was sub-par and, to nobody’s fault, the audio/visual equipment used was primitive, yet the performance was still commanding of our present-day audience. We were ordered in the most pleasing manner to bounce, clap, shout, and do anything we could to be the best possible audience we could be for such an advanced performer.

This is in large part due to how captivating the band was. Brown’s concerts weren’t so much a rigid setlist of songs the band marched through one-by-one, rather continuous medley after medley. During “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” Brown performs an improvised sexual rap that breaks into, one of my favorites, “Lost Someone,” followed by “Bewildered,” layered between the “Man’s Man’s World” groove and concludes with a capitalized jam.

Since we don’t see today’s bands perform medleys (other than the occasional jam band), I had forgotten how enjoyable they are from an audience’s perspective. The instantaneous tempo and/or key changes, the re-connections with the jam’s foundation to prepare the next venture, all while the audience’s anticipation and wonder mount until the conductor feel it’s time to send us home. Bands who actually enjoy performing and view their performances as their “art” utilize medleys. Unfortunately this is lost on most contemporary performers.

Contrasted with performers of today, who at times lack interest or passion on stage, Brown’s effort could never be questioned. Killing it with an up-tempo style that builds throughout the show until the audience reaches exhaustion only to then deliver a heart-swallowing swoon to slow things down and take us from exuberance to heartache, Brown reveals how he truly revels being on-stage. How he knows he’s captivating thousands of people, and how there’ll never be another unanimous “Hardest Working Man in Show-Business.”

The man kills it.  Before it was cool to act careless, sarcastic, or detached, this man was seriously and intensely cool. This seriousness goes into each dance step, each note, each scream. If given the chance, please see it for yourself.

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