James Brown is dead. Wait, no he's not. You know how I know? I was standing right in front of him!
Not only does James Brown have his own band -- complete with two drummers, two bassists (?), a percussionist, two guitarists, an organist, three female backup singers, two sexy dancers, a co-vocalist named R.J. and three horn players, including a saxophonist who looks like Ron Jeremy and a trumpeter who resembles Hal Holbrook -- but he also travels with his own MC, an awesome octogenarian wearing a white tuxedo and a pink tie who pronounces "James Brown" in a resonant, high-pitched cry, as if his mouth were a kazoo. This he does a number of times, introducing and reintroducing the singer, oiling up the crowd as the band vamps some generic soul in the background. The intro process takes about 15 minutes. Finally, after Ron Jeremy blasts a sax solo so high into the upper register that I understand why they serve concert wine in plastic cups, Brown takes the stage like a third-world dictator greeting his people.
Shortly thereafter, though, I fear the worst: At 76, James Brown is as old as they come. These days, he waddles more than he struts. The fact that he's still in the game only reinforces the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business" tag. But let's be honest -- 76 is hip-breaking age. You wouldn't want your grandpa gyrating on stage at 76. As the band launches into "Make It Funky," images of Brown taking a header ("Hee-ya! I've fallen and I can't kiss ma-self!") flash through my mind. As he sashays an inch to the left, another to the right, I think, "Just keep it simple, Godfather! Don't strain yourself!" But then he does what seconds prior seemed impossible: He pulls his signature move, a full spin, a fling of the mike stand, then a tug on the mike chord, whipping the stand back to him. "Heeeey!"
You know what it was like? Fucking Yoda. You know that scene in Star Wars: Episode II, the one at the end when Yoda goes toe-to-toe with that old dude, and he's all flipping around like a Furby on a trampoline? That's James Brown. Mr. Dynamite is old, but he's agile. He's got the force -- and he knows how to use it. Granted, when the 57-membered band fires up "Soul Man," Brown lets his right-hand man, R.J., take over on the verses, but still, his mere presence, the fact that he's still heaving and sweating, is awe-inspiring. I'll bet this is how Catholics feel when the Popemobile drives through town.
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The other cool thing is that James Brown doesn't speak English. He speaks Soul. Here's a typical exchange: "Howbe dow feedy teh-nah?" [Translation: "How are you all feeling tonight?"] "Ee beeby-deeby hey." ["It's good to be here."] "Whabe dowby dobah dow..." ["What we'd like to do right now..."] "Ezzby deeby ha-hey!" [???]
It's not surprising (and not disappointing, either) that the set lasts only about an hour; there's no encore. The band flies through all the hits -- "Try Me," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," "Super Bad," "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "(Get Up I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" -- and, toward the end, Brown's trusty MC does the signature gag, that of trying to drape Brown in his "Godfather of Soul" cape, only to have Brown throw it off at the last minute and retake the stage, and our hearts -- awwwww.
What sums it up for me, though, is when, during the third go-round of "Sex Machine," Brown unleashes a dance that is unmistakably the Cabbage Patch. He doesn't nail it, can't completely get his hips around the moves, but a few seconds into it, invited or not, some dumb-ass white dude in a blue button-down shirt (tucked) leaps up on stage and joins in. But the white dude can't hang at all. He swings his arms out of rhythm and moves his hips to some far-distant beat that exists only in his head (Bruce Hornsby?). The message is clear: James Brown may be old, he may wear a wig and look like Yoda, he may have taken his share of licks in prison, on the road, in the studio and certainly on the stage, but hot damn -- he can still put a young, dumb white dude to shame in a dance-off. This, I know in my heart, will always be true.