James Brown at Massey Hall, November 29. Tickets: $59.50-$79.50. Attendance: 2,400. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
At 71, James Brown isn't exactly tearing up the stage like he used to. But there's still plenty to hold your attention.
Based on last Monday's Massey Hall show, he's not doing the splits any more, and these days a mere attempt at the shuffle and slide merits applause, but the man makes up for it all with a sparkly suit and showmanship. The 11-piece band, three Bittersweets (backup singers) and two rock-hard, scantily clad backup dancers don't hurt either.
Through it all, Brown kept the singing to a minimum. Opening with Make It Funky and moving into Get Up Off That Thing, he played maestro to the band, took over on keys almost right off and had some playful interaction with the Bittersweets, who are fabulous vocalists. And ever so saucy.
As the show wore on, it became apparent that Brown can't hit all the notes any more, and when a tough one comes up he skilfully brings in the odd Bittersweet to hit it for him. Seems like a lot of work: this task plus the theatrics appear to be as much a part of the Bittersweets' job description as singing backup. Not to mention the awful dresses they have to wear. Hope he pays 'em well.
The band, clad in red suits, was dead on and incredibly precise, with a smooth rhythm section and sweet percussion. Jeff Watkins bought in some kick-ass sax solos, and guitarist David Woods offered impressive licks.
Brown may be taking it easy, but he still has got it goin' on with a riveting a stage presence. Things got touching when he brought it down a notch with If I Ruled The World, and I almost even forgot about all that assault and domestic violence business. He's that good.
Which brings me to the strange event of some white 30-something, kind of gothish-looking woman coming up onstage to belt out a tune. She was OK, but no better a singer than any of the Bittersweets. "What the hell is she doing up there?" I wondered. He said her name, but, y'know, he can be kind of hard to understand sometimes. Turns out (as I discovered when I got on the Web) she's his wife, Tomi Rea Brown .
The evening ended with I Feel Good and Sex Machine.
Everyone went all nuts, the hot dancer chicks did flips and Tomi sort of sang a few words and danced around.
I came away with the feeling that Mr. James Brown, the hardest-working man in show business, the godfather of soul, etc, is pretty fucking awesome.
Jacksoul opened with some clean Canadian soul and even got a standing ovation.