[…] When the band hits its first notes and the room begins to ride
the music, a kind of metamorphosis occurs, a sort of transmutation
of the air of expectation in this Midlands crowd. They've been
relieved of the first layer of their disbelief that James Brown has
really come to Gateshead: At the very least, James Brown's Sound
has arrived. After the band's long overture, Danny Ray, every
impeccable tiny inch of him, pops onstage. He says, "Now comes Star
Time!" and the roof comes off. Under Danny Ray's instruction, the
crowd rises to its feet and begins to chant its hero's name.
When James Brown is awarded to them the people of Gateshead are
the happiest people on Earth, and I am one of them. Never mind that
I now know to watch for the rock-paper-scissors hand signals, I am
nevertheless swept up in the deliverance of James Brown to his
audience. The Sun God has strode across a new threshold, the alien
visitor has unveiled himself to another gathering of humans. I see,
too, how James Brown's presence animates his family: Keith, fingers
moving automatically on frets, smiling helplessly when James Brown
calls out his name. Fred Thomas bopping on a platform with his
white beard, an abiding sentinel of funk. Hollie, the invisible
man, now stepping up for a trumpet solo. Damon, who during Tommie
Rae's rendition of "Hold On, I'm A-Comin' " can be heard to slip a
reference to "Lady Marmalade" into his guitar solo.
The show builds to the slow showstopper, "It's A Man's Man's
Man's World." The moment when James Brown's voice breaks across
those horn riffs is one of the greatest in pop music, and the
crowd, already in a fever, further erupts. When they cap the ballad
by starting "Sex Machine" it is a climax on top of a climax. The
crowd screams in joy when James Brown dances even a little (and
these days, it is mostly a little). Perhaps, I think, we are all in
his family. We want him to be happy. We want him alive. When the
James Brown Show comes to your town — when it comes to Gateshead,
U.K., today, as when it came to the Apollo Theater in 1961, as when
it came to Atlanta or Oklahoma City or Indianapolis anytime, life
has admitted its potential to be astounding, if only for as long as
the Show lasts. Now that James Brown is old, we want this to go on
occurring for as long as possible. We almost don't wish to allow
ourselves to think this, but the James Brown Show is a precious
thing that may someday vanish from the Earth.
Now James Brown has paused the Show for a monologue about love.
He points into the balconies to the left and right of him. "I love
you and you and you up there," he says. "Almost as much as I love
myself." He asks the audience to do the corniest thing: to turn and
tell the person on your left that you love him. Because it is James
Brown who asks, the audience obliges. While he is demonstrating the
turn to the left, turning expressively in what is nearly a curtsy
to Hollie and the other horns, James Brown spots me there, standing
in the wings. The smile he gives me is as natural as that one he
gave Fred Wesley, it is nothing like the grin of a statue, and if
it is to be my own last moment with James Brown, it is a fine one.
I feel good.
Too many ditties make me go bop. The question implies listening to said song for a while: time-tested, bad-mood-approved. This week's top-of-mind is Terence Blanchard's "Mo' Better Blues," with the O'Jays' "Backstabbers" or Bobby Womack's "If You Think You're Lonely Now (Wait Until Tonight)" as close seconds.
I've also been crushing on the corn-syrupy sweetness of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On."