28 Jul 2015

Greatest NZ concert you've ever seen - James Brown

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 2:10 pm on 28 July 2015

James Brown poster advertising Auckland show.

We go all the way back to 1978, when a musical phenomenon touched down on Auckland's North Shore. Yes, it was The Godfather of Soul himself, Mister James Brown. The first time James Brown played in Auckland, the first time he played in New Zealand in fact, he didn't play at a venue in the central city, but rather at a cabaret club across the bridge on the North Shore, the Shoreline in Takapuna.

Murray Cammick was there.

The Godfather of Funk by NZ music writer Murray Cammick

We will need a new card for Christmas 2007, one that recognises the birth of Jesus Christ and the death of James Brown on December 25.

When you read Brown's biography you wonder how he survived his childhood in a house of ill-repute and his imprisonment as a teenager. With no education, how did this wild and crazy guy become the biggest soul star in the USA and then revolutionise that style to invent funk?

I get pissed off when music writers choose the 1962 Live At The Apollo as Brown's best live album. They are ignoring the pivotal achievement of his life, the fact that in 1965 he invented a new sound with the single 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag.' This single was No.1 on the Billboard R&B charts for eight weeks. He should be called the Godfather of Funk not the Godfather of Soul.

I found a writer in the James brown box set Star Time who supports my conjecture, his name is James Brown.

"The first nine years of my career 1956-65 were good. I had 'Please Please Please', 'Night Train' [etc]. They sustained me, but it wasn't enough. Then I thought about the people around me. I wanted to come up with something that would give us a place in the business. That's when I hit on 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag'. It was a slang that would relate to the man in the street, plus it had its own sound: the music on the one-and-three, the downbeat in anticipation. To the musicians I was saying, here's a new bag. Here's a new direction. Here's one that represents the people, not just Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, Strauss or Mantovani. So I brought the realness back. It was a revolution that became a universal sound and it's still universal today." (abridged)

Brown remained one funk's finest practictioners throughout his career and inspired the careers of Sly Stone, the P-Funk crowd (many of George Clinton's musicians including Bootsy Collins were previously in Brown's band), Prince, Michael Jackson and the hip-hop generation etc.

In 1968, Brown released the single 'Say It Loud I'm Black And I'm Proud' that spent six weeks at No.1 on the USA R&B charts. He previewed this song cautiously at his 1968 Dallas concert. This concert was released in 1998 as Say t Live And Loud on Polydor. Chuck D of Public Enemy writes in the CD's intro about this second pivotal song, "James Brown single-handedly took a lost and confused nation of people and bonded them with a fix of words, music and attitude. "Say It Loud I'm Black And I'm Proud' was a phrase that prepared me for the third grade, 1969 and the rest of my life."

"The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" is one of the other slogans used to describe James Brown. New Zealanders can understand why he has earnt this title as most of the other greats of soul music (Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Solomon Burke, Smokey Robinson, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, Sam & Dave etc) have never even played once in New Zealand, yet James Brown has played here three times and was also booked for two other concerts that were cancelled.

James Brown first played Auckland in the middle of 1978 when he did two shows in one night at the Shoreline Cabaret. Brown was to appear at the January 1988 Neon Picnic, that collapsed when the Music Festival could not pay for the airfares for the foreign musicians to travel to New Zealand. Brown was also booked to appear at an outdoor show on April 1, 1995 at Mt Smart Stadium, that was cancelled when ticket sales were slow.

After playing the Byron Bay Festival in Australia, Brown then played a packed show at the St. James Theatre on March 31, 2004. His return to Auckland on February 10, 2006 saw Brown playing to a half full Civic Theatre.

I saw all these shows and it would be easy to say how great it was back in the day at the intimate Shoreline Cabaret show, but my favourite New Zealand concerts were his two recent visits to play Auckland's aging picture palaces.

Back in 1978, James Brown flew into Auckland and did two shows in one night and went straight from the second show to the airport for a 5.30 am flight to Australia. I think he might have been a tired man on the night. I went to the late show (not the dinner show) at the Shoreline Cabaret, a small venue on the top floor of the Takapuna Shopping Mall.

In RipItUp Alastair Dougal (the original editor) wrote:

"On stage his tiny frame seems to contain more power than he dare let loose. After the fast songs, he has to visibly compose himself before he can tackle a moving version of 'Georgia on My Mind' - it's as if he didn't contain this strength, he would overwhelm the song. The fast songs display Brown's taste for simplicity. He's stripped the soul formula down to its basics - rhythm and voice."

After the show I went backstage with Bryan Staff (Ripper label founder) and Alastair Dougal and met James Brown. A woman who was with us, another photographer Gillian Chaplin, was not allowed backstage. 'No women backstage' we were told. Bryan Staff (then at 1ZM) told James that as a teen living in Christchurch, he'd encouraged a friend's father to release early James Brown singles in New Zealand. We were welcomed as "soul brothers" and Mr. Brown did a brief interview.

Outside the venue, Brown's entourage were leaving for the airport. My most vivid memory from that night, was of the large grand motherly wardrobe lady for Mr. Brown, outside the venue sitting atop a big old leather wardrobe suitcase, as though it were a motorbike. She must have wondered why she was in this strange land at 4 am on a winter morning. I asked her if she looked after the whole band and she replied, "No.. Mr Brown is enough work."

It is weird that I cannot remember the 1978 show in any significant detail. Maybe meeting James Brown was so memorable that I forgot the show or possibly I had not yet embraced his evolving funk sound.

To add to my confusion, in December 1979 in Tokyo, James Brown recorded the live album Hot On The One, which immediately became my favourite live James Brown album. How different could his 1979 show be from his 1978 show?

Key songs on Hot On The One are drawn from his late 1970s albums that music writers and even James Brown have criticised. 'Get Up Offa That Thing' (title track of a 1976 album), 'It's Too Funky In Here' (from 1979's The Original Disco Man), 'A Funky Good Time', 'Body Heat' (title track of another 1976 album) and 'Jam' (from 1978 album Jam 1980s, the release he was pushing in Auckland and Tokyo). The first three of these songs became the backbone of the first half of the James Brown live show, right through the 1980s until 2006. And most nights, what a great show that was! It's captured on DVDs Live at Chastain Park (1984), Live in London (1985), Live In Berlin (1988) and even Live from The House of Blues (2000).

James Brown Biographer Geoff Brown describes 1988 as "the worst year of his life." It was the best James Brown year of my life.

The Neon Picnic Festival was scheduled for the last weekend in January 1988, on the Sweetwaters Ngaruawahia site with a lineup including critics' favourites such as James Brown, The Pogues, Los Lobos, Nona Hendryx and Roy Orbison. The event looked shakey financially, weeks out from the event, so Simon Grigg and I booked cheap airfares to Melbourne to see James Brown where he was booked for three nights at the Metro, an old theatre converted into a flash nightclub.

First night at the Metro and I'm in the crush near the front of the stage just behind a posse of loud, possibly inebriated Greeks. An out- of-it jerk pushes past me. I get eye contact from the Greek posse and I step aside and the jerk is picked up by the collar and he rockets past me, propelled 10 metres back on to the club floor. My position to see James Brown was not threatened again.

The band's intro numbers are sensational, they are hotter than the album Hot On The One and the legendary Maceo Parker is back and he walks the theatre floor with a radio mic on his sax and the audience goes crazy and a concerned James Brown looks through the gap in the curtains. He knows he can't follow that and probably regrets that Maceo is back, for a moment or two.

Brown takes the stage to an already hyped crowd but he's a bit too big for his stage costume and his fly is not going to stay up. The tightest band in the world is nearly falling over with laughter but not loosing a beat. In time with the groove, Brown jumps around to face his band and see if the situation is redeemable. The band immediately look 100 percent serious as the Godfather of Soul faces them. Brown returns to the mic and facing the audience and the band sport grins from ear to ear. In the pause between songs one of the Greek guys shouts "You're fly's undone!" After one more song, Brown retreats backstage for a very necessary costume change.

The show was mind-blowing, although at the time I thought Brown did leave the front of stage to doodle on the keyboards too often. In terms of a musical experience, I thought I'd seen God. Although I did not know whether God was Mr. Brown, Maceo Parker or the band..

The following night I knew Maceo would be confined to the stage but as Maceo and the band stormed through the intro numbers I knew the show was peaking. It could not get better than this! I saw musical divinity again that night but that deity was the sum of its parts -- i.e. longtime bandmembers such as St.Clair Pickney (sax), the rhythm section (of course), backing singer Martha High, Maceo and possibly the greatest bandleader of all time, James Brown.

The essence of the shows I saw in Melbourne are recorded on the DVD that Brown recorded in the middle of that same year in East Berlin.' Due to the excellence of his performances it is difficult to believe that 1988 was year in which Brown's PCP use had caused a May concert to be cancelled in New York and led to his September 1988 arrest after a lengthy police chase. Brown was lucky to be alive as his ute had 23 bullet holes in it. Brown served two and a half years of a six year sentence before resuming his career. And of course, the unfortunate cause of the pursuit was Brown's brandishing a gun in anger after someone used his private toilet.

It was great to have James Brown back on the road in the 1990s and amazing that he found his way back to New Zealand twice. The 1988 Melbourne shows are still my favourite shows as Maceo Parker was there. But the 2004 and 2006 Auckland shows were also excellent and his recent band was funky as his brilliant 1980s lineup.

How good a show is, can depend not on factors like a performer's age or agility but on whether they are enjoying themselves on the night. James seemed to enjoy himself at both the St James and Civic shows and really excel on some of the old soul songs. How happy could he have been on the first night in Melbourne when his employee tried to blow him off the stage and he didn't fit in his pants? The 2006 Civic gig seemed somehow intimate, like Brown was in your lounge and he enjoyed his keyboard doodles and I did too.

One mark of genius in music is a prolific output, whether you're Bob Dylan, Prince or James Brown, the audience and the music writers should not be able to keep up with you. Relistening to Brown's many albums - music fans, archivists and writers will now find gold where they found fault.

First confession is from Robert Christgau (formerly of Village Voice, New York) in the LA Times, reflecting on his 1974 review of the song 'Time Is Running Out' on the album The Payback -- " 'A horn-and-voice excursion that shambles on for 12:37,' I'd sniffed. What then I'd disdained, now I loved. That's how profound James Brown is. We're still trying to catch up with him. I doubt we ever will."

 - First published on the Opdiner blog

The Rip It UP review of the 1978 James Brown concert in Auckland.

The Rip It UP review of the 1978 James Brown concert in Auckland. Photo: Murray Cammick

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)