James Brown at 9:30: The Dampened Blast Of Mr. Dynamite

The Godfather of Soul delivered on the slow songs but barely grunted on the rest.
The Godfather of Soul delivered on the slow songs but barely grunted on the rest. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005

Papa's got a brand new tag: Introducing James Brown, the Hardest-Working Foreman in Show Business!

It's tough being Mr. Dynamite when you're well into your seventies, and Brown doesn't even bother putting on a charade anymore. Wednesday at the 9:30 club, the erstwhile hardest-working man in showbiz spent much of the night merely supervising his sprawling supporting cast.

The Godfather of Soul, whose career has been a mother lode of nicknames, was onstage for 85 minutes, many of which he spent either playing right-handed keyboard lines or semi-conducting his 11-piece band. Professional but hardly superlative, a la the Brown bands of old, the group vamped early and often, with three guitarists and a tenor sax player stepping out for frequent solos.

Two female dancers, who resembled NFL cheerleaders in their spangled spandex getups, moved more during "Get Up Offa That Thing" than Brown did the entire night. (Perhaps Soul Brother No. 1 was trying to keep his hair in place. Processed, parted emphatically on the right and swooping out over his ears like flaps, Brown's do is an objet d'art. Whatever; Butane James still managed to look gassed, if resplendent in a red tuxedo with black frills.)

There was also the matter of Brown's singing, or lack thereof: With four female backup singers -- plus Brown's wife, Tomi Rae -- often carrying the brunt of the vocal load, Brown's duties were significantly reduced in songs like "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Living in America" and a truncated "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Often, about the only sounds coming from his mouth were grunts or shouts -- but not even many of those.

"Live at the Apollo" it was not.

And it certainly didn't help that D.C. Council member Vincent Orange interrupted the set after about 20 minutes to present a momentum-killing resolution honoring Brown "for the great work he's done in the nation's capital." Nice sentiment but lousy timing, and Orange, a mayoral candidate, was booed for the intrusion.

Still, a late-era James Brown show has its moments, and the best of them came when he performed the slower material. Brown summoned a bluesy, almost churchy wail for songs such as "Try Me" and Ray Charles's "Night Time Is the Right Time" and sounded particularly impassioned and soul-stirring on "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World," which was easily the highlight of the encoreless set.

Not that we'd ever dare to tell a live-show legend and one of the most important and influential performers ever how to do his thing, but Brown might consider replacing some of the up-tempo material in his show with more plaintive ballads. Even if fans flock to his shows largely for the fiery, polyrhythmic funk that he pioneered.

He'd also do well to slim down his touring troupe. There appeared to be plenty of musical redundancy, and often during the set, the second of the two drummers sat idly at his kit, watching the two bassists, two tenor sax players and three guitarists perform alongside the percussionist and horn player.

There were also the two dancers, the wife, the four other singers, the announcer, the hype man and, at one point, a guy in a suit who came onstage just to throw a James Brown-logo towel into the crowd at his boss's direction.

Alas, the one entertainer in the room who never did join Brown onstage was Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go, Washington's homespun funk music.

Chuck Brown, who's also in his seventies, opened with a loose, freewheeling set that stood in sharp contrast to James Brown's precision-oriented show, and the possibility of the two musical godfathers performing together had funk fans salivating. But even though Chuck Brown watched his idol's set from the side of the stage, a summit never materialized. Probably too much extra work for the headliner.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company