Saturday, November 20, 2010

Live at the Apollo (1963)

This still holds a reputation for being one of the greatest live albums ever recorded—certainly one of the first. If it now has many rivals, it's still not hard to see the point. It is, first, a faithful chronicle of a live show, at least James Brown's portion of it, from beginning to end, as opposed to some record of a peculiarly successful jam session in front of a crowd, which is what other highly regarded live albums, as by the Allman Brothers or Phish or the Dead, amount to. So it starts with the standard introduction by a breathless master of ceremonies, in which JB is praised every which way imaginable for two minutes, a gesture that merely serves to build suspense further (by that point in many Brown shows it was getting cruelly late and the band had already been onstage for nearly an hour raving up on rhythm and blues standards). Then, suddenly, he's there, James Brown himself, flashing his moves (you see them in memory, they are emblazoned there), blasting through hits with breath-quickening tempos: here, "I'll Go Crazy," "Try Me," "Think," songs that the audience knows and craves, already satisfying appetites. The performance is complete with calculated flourishes at every point, the band tight and taut and muscular, providing ratatat transitions between the numbers. Then the show shifts gears, slowing down some with "I Don't Mind," then stretching things out to over 10 minutes with a smoldering "Lost Someone." He's got you now—somewhere in here the point occurs where you realize that all the hassles of getting to this show and waiting for it to start are now undeniably worth it. Always a good moment. Terrific accidents of live performance are captured, as when a girl shrieks into a quiet place, perfectly timed with the emotion of the song in the moment, and the audience responds with gasps of laughter, tension released. That also provides a canny concrete sense that this all actually happened once, in some faraway room, now caught forever. Then—he's actually very nearly done now—a seven-minute medley, intended to leave nothing neglected: "Please, Please, Please," "You've Got The Power," "I Found Someone," "Why Do You Do Me," "I Want You So Bad," "I Love You, Yes I Do," "Strange Things Happen," "Bewildered," and a return to "Please, Please, Please." An impossibly fast "Night Train" finishes it. In the end, after little more than 30 minutes, band and audience are equally exhausted, and satisfied. That's showmanship raw and pure, and this is one of the best places to find it.

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