James Brown! James Brown! I never used to see what all the fuss was about. Sure his music was good, but there were lots of others just as funky, and just as soulful. Any time I’d seen him on television, or any other taped performance, it was nothing to write home about.
Well, this is that letter home. Hudson Street’s DVD release James Brown — Soul Session captures the magic of James Brown in concert and brings together an almost impeccable lineup of talent to help him bring it on home. Wilson Pickett, Jo Cocker, Robert Palmer, Aretha Franklin, and a very forgettable Dave Verra (looking almost as out of place as Brown would at a Klan rally) are on hand to sing, dance, and rip up the joint with the self-proclaimed Godfather of Soul.
Produced for the cameras and shot in front of a live audience, James Brown – Soul Session combines the close-up shooting of a directed event with the energy of a live audience and gives a true picture of this man’s incredible talent, energy, and charisma. From the first moment he struts on to stage to sing “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” until the last fade out of the whole gang singing “Living In America,” the heat never leaves this furnace. If they could harness this energy, no one would ever worry about gas prices again.
A pattern is quickly established with Wilson Picket. Each guest comes up and sings a song on their own and then is joined by James. Nobody is going to back down from Mr. Brown. They all have to rise to the challenge of him pushing them to their limits and beyond. It’s not often that you see people leaving every last bit of themselves on stage, but when James called for one more time on “Midnight Hour,” I didn’t know whether Picket was going to make it off the stage alive or not.
Joe Cocker has never been one to hold back on stage, but even he was pushed to his limits. He came out and sang “When A Man Loves A Woman” with his usual power and grace, but it was when James joined him that he really took fire. Try to visualise Joe Cocker and James Brown having a boxing match with their voices and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what happened. Joe took a standing eight count and had to stagger to his corner. James kept on strutting, waiting for the next challenger.
I never liked Robert Palmer’s music back when he was doing those weird videos for “Addicted To Love” and his other hits, so his performance was the biggest surprise for me. He and James jumped right into “I Feel Good” and Palmer was great. Standing there in his nice suit and coiffed hair, looking every inch the proper Englishman, and the music starts and it’s like he’s processed.
What looks initially like stiffness and holding back is actually the coiled tension of a hunting cat waiting to spring. If James Brown is a star going super nova, Robert Palmer is more of a controlled meltdown. Together, they were breathtaking. Palmer went three rounds with James, but even he had to concede defeat, at one point backing away from the microphone laughing and shaking his head in amazement, before throwing in the towel and appealing to the judges to the end the bout.
Up to this point in the show, the air has been redolent with testosterone, but James Brown is the consummate showman and knows how to stage an event. For his final match of the night, he saved Aretha Franklin. She swept imperiously on to stage, the Queen coming to challenge the Godfather, and took the fight to him immediately with “Do Right Man.”
James came on stage in between her songs, and danced with her for a second, then he was dismissed for her to sing “Jimmy D.” Finally, he’d had enough and came back and joined Aretha for “Please, Please.” Poor James; maybe he was worn down from the previous bouts of the evening, or maybe the Godfather is just no match for the Queen, but he had to go to his corner for a second to be wrapped in his robe so he could come back out swinging.
It was like being in some sort of a gospel church of funk. These two amazing singers testifying undying love in growls, moans, and other strange sonic noises, they were able to produce in tune with the music. You don’t get to see Aretha Franklin cut lose very often; she usually stays within the old Motown boundaries of respectability, but she was at full power on this occasion.
In an interview before the show, Robert Palmer mentions that this was being shot for television. If so, I never heard of it airing on any station that I know of, or when it was even shot. The one drawback of this DVD is there is no track listings included, the text on the scene select menu is so small that you can’t read it, and no information about when the actual concert was. You know it’s in Detroit because the M.C. tells you so.
But that’s a minor quibble and it just means if you’re someone like me who never remembers song titles, you’ll just have to live without knowing them while you watch. If, in the past, you have been disappointed with what you’ve seen of James Brown on video or in taped concert, then you must own this DVD for no other reason than seeing him mop up the floor with almost all challengers.
Watching him go toe-to-toe and pushing people to give their all, because of his presence alone, speaks more about the man’s charisma and vitality than anything anyone can ever tell you about him. James Brown is more than just the Godfather of Soul; he’s the damn King.