I have no doubt that live albums can be just as valid of an artistic statement as the studio ones if done right. But what exactly should an artist do on stage to make it worth not only seeing him but also paying a little extra cash to have that performance in audio format? Well, there is the case of the performance being important from a historical perspective. When it comes to albums such as Neil Young’s Time Fades Away or Bob Dylan’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall the back-story is just as important as the music itself. Knowing that both artists were defying audience’s expectations in order to follow their artistic vision adds an extra dimension to the whole experience – you can almost sense the tension (or hear the booing in the case of Dylan) as if you’re part of the crowd on that particular day.
As far as I’m aware there is no such backstory to Live at the Apollo. It’s just James Brown and his band The Famous Flames basically performing all the hits that’ve made them a respectable force in the R&B/Soul game by that point: 1965’s Please, Please, Please, 1958’s Try Me, 1960’s I’ll Go Crazy and Think, 1961’s I Don’t Mind and 1962’s Night Train. Some lesser known singles are thrown in, but none of them unheard before. In spite of all this, the album still gives you the feeling that you’re witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime event that won’t ever be replicated, not by the artist himself and not by anybody else. It makes you part of the story to a near surreal degree where the stage is in front of you and the screaming girls around you.
Which brings me to my second point – how can an artist achieve this feat? Should he play the songs as close to their studio counterpart or take them through a total reinvention until they becomes whole new beasts? Should his set-list consist of the hits that he knows most of the audience came for or be a selection of more obscure songs that would please the die-hard fans and ultimately himself more? With Live at the Apollo, James Brown answers these questions with a perfect middle ground. Songs such as Think and Night Train are no doubt different – sped-up in tempo, more dynamic in instrumentation and less intelligible in lyrics – but at the same time the direction feels like a natural update. If their original purpose was to make the listener get up on his feet, then this nearly maniac, proto-funk vibe only commands him to do so faster.
But James Brown and his Famous Flames are no fools to try to give the ballads the same treatment. Instead, on I Don’t Mind and Try Me the accent is put on the vocal performance and the results are just as impressive. Brown can be a passionate soul singer just as much as he can scream and dance his ass off. When he gives the mic his attention he puts everything into it – and nowhere is this more evident than on Lost Someone, the album’s true masterpiece. An extended 8-minute take of one of his 3-minute singles, it finds the protagonist lonely and weak, begging his loved one to come home with all the power that he has left in him. If the original was a mere love ballad, than this feels like a forgiveness plea sung by James from the bottom of his heart while kneeling at her feet. It is not just a textbook example of how to perform a song live, but simply one of the most powerful moments ever captured on tape.
Brown is a master of transitions too, as proven by Lost Someone culminating into the Please, Please, Please medley, sending the audience into near-Beatlemania level of screams. He then takes them through a journey of no less than 8 songs within 6 minutes (some I’ve personally never heard before) in such a manner that it never really becomes boring. He has total command over the audience, keeping them on their toes throughout all of the show’s duration. What more can you ask from a live album really? Although not yet in his famous funk period, James Brown proves himself to be the ultimate showman without sacrificing any of the musical genius: Live at the Apollo is just an incredible performance to both hear and feel.
Categories: Album Reviews