There’s been no shortage of big names on the line-up of the first BBC Electric Proms, and they don’t come much bigger than James Brown. Variously styled the Godfather of Soul, Mr Dynamite and the Hardest Working Man in Showbusiness, James Brown began as a blues and gospel tinged soul singer in the ’50s before pioneering first funk and then rap in the ’60s and ’70s.
Known for his electrifying live performances, few people have had more influence on popular music than him. Exactly 50 years on since his first hit Please, Please, Please, the 73-year-old proved that he can still put on a good show – albeit with a lot of help from his friends.
Preceding the “big man,” as their lead singer David McCabe described him, were The Zutons, who delivered a fine performance of their quirky brand of indie rock-pop in a half-hour set. The Scousers drew on material from both their albums, including hit singles You Will, You Won’t, T-Rex-style glam rocker Why Won’t You Give Me Your Love and Valerie.
Abi Harding’s full-throated sax and the bands infectious vocal harmonies helped to give texture to these well-crafted tunes. They were accompanied (it seems almost obligatory these days) by a string quartet on Not a Lot to Do, drawing out the bittersweet melody. And they finished on a high with a wham-bam rendition of Bowie‘s Ziggie-era Suffragette City.
When James Brown’s 10-piece band (including a horn section, two drummers and a percussionist), dressed in navy-blue uniforms with gold-braid trimming and epaulettes, like the musical corps of the US Cavalry, came on stage the sense of anticipation was palpable. But after the band warmed up and the compere made his lengthy introductions, it was more than ten minutes later before the main man himself appeared to rapturous applause, making quite an entrance in his shimmering electric blue suit. There was no doubt that JB still certainly knows how to work an audience to the max.
However, it has to be said that now as a Grandfather of Soul he is no longer the dynamic presence on stage which made him such a legendary performer, as recorded in his famous 1963 Live at the Apollo album. These days he only attempts a few dance moves sporadically and his voice, though it remains distinctive, has lost a lot of its power. Although the showmanship is still there, the raw energy has faded with age. You have to admire his stamina for staying on stage for what turned out to be a remarkable two and a quarter hours, but a lot of that time he was sharing the limelight with various other performers.
Apart from his highly accomplished band, most of whom got the chance to play solos, there were four female backing singers (who occasionally took lead vocals) and two go-go dancers in hotpants, not to mention several guest artists. Las Vegas performer Tammy Ray sang the Sam and Dave song Hold On I’m Coming, actor/musician Max Beesley played piano for JB to sing Ray Charles‘ Georgia On My Mind, the Sugababes sang the harmonies for one of JB’s earliest hits Try Me, and the London Community Gospel Choir closed the show with a rousing gospel flourish.
This often seemed more like a fragmented variety show than a soul concert, with JB conducting proceedings and chatting to the audience, and too much “filling.” Although there were flashes of the old magic, you couldn’t help feeling that he was coasting on the wave of affection coming from the crowd, built up over decades of outstanding musical achievement. There was too much of “Let’s have another round of applause for…” and “Everybody feeling good?” rather than getting on down to the nitty gritty. Although there were interesting versions of Funky Good Time and the classic It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, some of the song arrangements seemed over-elaborate and over-extended.
After throwing off the cape thrown around him in time-honoured style, and returning to perform Rock Your Body and Sex Machine, JB certainly got the crowd moving near the end, but a leaner more focused show – with more soul and less stuffing – would have done better justice to this legendary musician.