“James Brown Is Dead.” Wait, no he's not. You know how I know? I was standing right in front of him!
God bless the summer concert season. Like NASCAR and cruise missiles, these shows — the kind that feature yester-decade's hit-makers, the kind that bloom like crabgrass between the months of May and September — are stitched into the very fabric of our American consciousness. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than at the county fair shoving your cake-shoot full of shaved beef and watching the original members of Blood, Sweat & Tears resuscitate “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll)”? To these bands and their fans, nothing says “cultural footprint” like sharing marquee space with the Giant Watermelon Contest.
To get into the spirit of things, last Thursday my girlfriend and I got dressed up and drove out to ye olde Mountain Winery to see the Godfather of Soul do his thing. (And she says I never take her anywhere.)
First off, the Mountain Winery is a real gem, as in, say, a cubic zirconium. Nestled in the Saratoga hills, it offers a glorious, panoramic view of Los Altos, Palo Alto, Los Gatos — in other words, the shimmering suburbs of Silicon Valley, all a-twinkle with the glow of God's magnificent glory: the street light. How romantic. The idea is that you make reservations at the Winery's swank restaurant prior to the show, gorge yourself on victuals like Braised Turbot (which is what?), throw back some of the MW's signature vintage, then shake it like a saltshaker to the sounds of Peter Frampton, Bruce Hornsby, Jewel, Boz Scaggs, etc.
The event we show up at has attracted a fun-loving crowd peppered with the occasional shithead: After parking our car, we are nearly killed in the lot by an impatient douche-bag driving a sleek (fuck you!) Hummer.
That business aside, the best thing about the Winery (oh, and by the way, it's not the wine, which is served in plastic cups and tastes like it came out of a box) is the fact that it's tiny, a real hole in the wall, about half the size of the Greek in Berkeley. So when Brown's band, the Soul Generals, takes the stage, you can almost see every wrinkle in the musicians' faces (I think they call those “soul lines”), every love handle squishing beneath their red tuxedos.
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 re-introducing 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 the wine in plastic cups, Brown takes the stage like a Third World dictator greeting his people.
Shortly thereafter, though, I fear the worst: At 74, 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 — 74 is hip-breaking age. You wouldn't want your grandpa gyrating onstage at 74. 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.
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!” [???]
Not surprisingly (and not disappointingly, either) 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.
As the summer concert season ramps up, the Mountain Winery will welcome scores of graying performers, each packing his own quiver full of dated hits. The Counting Crows may sell the place out, the Doobie Brothers may smoke the place out, and REO Speedwagon may do … whatever it is REO Speedwagon does, but somehow I doubt that any of them will bring as much soul to the stage as the Godfather. James, may the force be with you, always.