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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: I Got The Feelin': James Brown in the 60s

Finally got this three DVD set the other day. Over the course of two nights, I watched the whole thing, and there's a lot here to digest. Unfortunately, there isn't much of the 60s covered and the title is a bit of a misnomer. But what's here is pretty essential for serious James Brown fans.

This set could almost have been called James Brown in March-April 1968 as aside from bonus footage on the third disc, that's really what the focus is on. More specifically, the important date is April 5th, 1968, the date of the concert on the second disc and, as the title of the documentary on the first says, "The Night James Brown Saved Boston."

Context is everything here, as April 4th was the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots had broken out all over the country and the major cities were breaking out in flames. Boston hadn't been hit yet, but, as luck would have it, there was a big James Brown concert scheduled.

At first, the city leaders considered canceling the show to keep people off the streets. Then, they had a better idea. Televise the concert. Hopefully, people would stay home and watch the show and the city might make it thought the night. A risky plan, but they didn't see many other options.

Too bad they couldn't get a hold of Brown before hand.

Needless to say, when James touched down in Boston, he was furious first at the attempt to shut down the show, then at the idea that the city was going to have it broadcast. Two things you could say about JB, he was a capitalist and he wasn't going to be used by anyone, and it looked like he stood to lose a lot of money and be used by the government of Boston.

Anyway, I won't recount the whole thing for you. It's an interesting story and the documentary covers it well. I'd always heard the Boston thing mentioned in JB lore, but this was the fullest I'd heard the story told. It's not only a pretty amazing piece of history, but it's a pretty good look at how much influence James had in the late 60s. The fact that televising a concert of his contributed to one of the quietest nights in Boston's history, is pretty amazing.

The second disc is the video of that concert. There are a couple of spots where there's missing video, but luckily there's still audio. The circumstances of the filming are unfortunate in more ways than one. WGBH was commissioned to do the telecast with little notice and no prior expirence filming much other than classical concerts. Their director jokes about not using the good mics and sadly, it's apparent, especially in James' vocal mic.

Still, they did a pretty good job. It's just odd how for most of the show, all you see is James in the spotlight. I don't know if that's a combination of early videotape equipment and the lighting in the Boston Gardens, but the effect is kind of eerie. Later in the show, James calls for the house lights while he's trying to keep people off the stage and you get a good look at how few people actually did come out.

Speaking of, the climax of the concert hasn't anything to do with the music. Near the end of the show, some kids jump on stage. A white cop pushes one back into the crowd. Then the stage is filled with people. James orders the cops to back up and handles the situation. It's pretty impressive stuff.

In spite of it all, they turn in a smoking performance. 1968 was kind of a turning point for James music and this show is a great example of what it was like at that time*. It's a shame that none of the other performers in the revue are featured. I would have loved to see Marva Whitney's set, but I'm assuming they only filmed James.

The third disc is kind of odd. The packaging trumpets the footage being from the Apollo in 68 and while it is, it's really a TV special called James Brown: Man to Man. The footage is heavy on the crooner stuff and there's a lengthy sequence of James walking around the ghetto. This special was shot about a month before the Boston show and while it's in color, the picture quality isn't as good as the black and white Boston footage.

The rest of the 60s is apparently represented by two clips from Paris in 67 and the famous TAMI Show appearance from 1964. Shame there wasn't more, but that's it.

Going into this, I knew it was pretty much about the Boston show so I wasn't disappointed. But, to someone who didn't know much about this release, Shout Factory's curious title might be misleading. While it's easy for a hardcore Brown fan like myself to ask for more, I have to say I'm pretty pleased by this set. I hope there's more to come, as I really think Shout did this right and there's still the whole half of the decade to cover. (Not to mention the 70s...hey, Shout Factory! How about a Future Shock box set?)

* Sidenote: another reviewer mentioned something about James starting off the show slow as a tribute to MLK or something like that. The fact of the matter is, James had been starting his shows off with a crooner set for most of the 60s. Based on other recordings around the same time, this is pretty much the same show they did every night on the road.

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