Rhetorical question of the night during James Brown's Thursday blowout at the 9:30 club: "Do you wanna get funky?"
When the indefatigable Godfather of Soul first asked, he was halfway through "Cold Sweat" after having kicked off his show with the rump-releasing "Get Up Offa That Thing," itself a purely rhetorical suggestion in a club that has no seats in which to park one's thing in the first place. To that point, it looked to be a classic J.B. show: killer hooks and pressure-cooked funk grooves, skin-tight arrangements and brain-melting blasts from the horn section and stinging solos from tenors, trumpeters and guitarists. And above it all, Mr. Dynamite and his guttural growl of a voice throwing down the most elemental lyrics and a whole lot of shouts, grunts and chants.
Brown then slipped into one of his most commercially accommodating, least musically inspired hits, "Living in America" (with extra shout-outs to Washington), before summoning up some impassioned bluesy pleading from his first No.1 R&B hit, 1958's "Try Me."
So far, so really good, judging from the ecstatic reaction of the jampacked house.
After that, however, the hits, and razor-sharp revivals of those hits, proved too few and far between as the two-hour concert began to unravel, victim to assorted digressions. Those included several long, rambling Brown discourses preached over a smoky groove; showcases for various backup singers, including one who turned in an overwrought "Stormy Monday Blues" followed with an opera chaser; a very average magician working to Brown's funk organ backup; and an interpretive dancer twirling around Brown as he sang "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World."
Sometimes, it felt like the stage show had been designed by Federico Fellini.
Brown looked every inch the legend in his luminescent aqua-green suit (the band wore appropriately red-hot red uniforms), and he still projects more power standing stock still than most performers do in locomotion.
Brown did no splits--at 71, he might not get up offa that floor--but he gave a generous sampling of the classic hip and leg shimmies, shakes and shivers that earned him a reputation as the hardest workin' man--and hardest sweatin' man--in show business.
Too often, however, it seemed that Brown was letting the band do much of the heavy lifting, particularly in an encore that threatened to exhaust the audience before it did the musicians. Brown's strongest moments in the latter part of the concert came with the stronger revivals: a dose of "Soul Power," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and a super-taut "Sex Machine."
Show time lasted two hours, but looking back, it felt like James Brown was front and center for only half that time.
CAPTION: James Brown, shown in 1997, can still shake it at 71 but he let his 9:30 club show get away from him.
CAPTION: James Brown, shown at Union Station in 1997, still has some funk in his step.