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Live at the Apollo 1995 (Scotti Bros.)
By Bob Bahr
"The Godfather of Soul" seems like too small a title for James Brown after hearing the latest proof of his current vitality and ability.
When he was younger, Brown conquered the charts by writing great grooves and horn charts, developing an unmistakable vocal style and mixing the trippily hip with the socially aware in his lyrics. Now that he's old enough to collect Social security, just getting up and doin' the James Brown Dance is accomplishment enough. But that's not where he stops on Live at the Apollo 1995. His latest record, recorded in April of 1994 at the famous Harlem theater, finds Brown sounding just slightly worse than his all-time best — letting loose with grunts, "ow!'s," screams and moans like a feisty gamecock bursting with pride and pain. James Brown sounds like he's in his second prime — if he ever left his first prime at all.
Some cuts here are absolutely smokin ', — "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Cold Sweat," "(I Got You) I Feel Good," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine" and "Get on the Good Foot" are tight ﬂexing of serious funk muscle. "Living in America" and "Get Up Offa That Thing" sound downright contemporary and downright jammin'. Guitarists Ronald Laster, Keith James Jenkins and Bertrand Odom deserve much of the credit for propelling the 24-piece Soul Generals, the backing band that makes Brown's retum to the Apollo a professional affair. Some old friends are back, including "Sweet" Charles Sherrell, St. Clair Pinckney, Fred Thomas and Martha High. And some new friends, such as percussionist George "Spike" Nealy II and trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, show that Brown can still pick 'em. This band doesn't sound uptight, it sounds outta sight.
Brown's past live albums have been of varying quality. They were well-muscled, but often at double the tempo and within the confines of greatest hits medleys with songs getting less than a minute to shine. Live at the Apollo I995 finds Brown nudging the tempos a bit, but never at the expense of his elastic grooves. And each hit song gets its due; only "Payback" and "Prisoner of Love" are abbreviated. And we get a wonderfully luxurious, 11-minute "It's a Man's World" to make up for it, plus meaty takes on "Cold Sweat," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."
Brown has written some unique, challenging hom charts over the years and they are crisply played here. They alone are worth the price of admission. But the Georgia-raised musician will leave his deepest mark in the singing category, Listen to "Try Me" and tell me James Brown has lost any of his ability. His performance has the urgency and poignancy of a lovesick teenager and the experience and craftsmanship of a veteran.
Two new songs are introduced on Live at the Apollo 1995, "Georgia-Lina" and a studio track titled "Respect Me." The former is a sweet ballad telling the tale of Brown's upbringing, the latter is an attempt to modernize James Brown. "Respect Me" is a nice slice of New Jack funk, but don't look for it to blaze the charts. Kids won't dig its dated elements, namely James' vocalizing.
You don't have to be a fan to like this funky disc and you don't have to be a music historian to appreciate this concert. (Brown visited the Apollo Theater 35 years ago and recorded a groundbreaking live album from the concert, making this a belated sequel.) This is one of the few 70-plus minute discs that truly leave you hungering for more. Just a little bit more. Please, please, please?