Sunday, March 14, 2021

James Brown's Live at the Apollo (2004)

I enjoyed this title by Douglas Wolk in the 33-1/3 series—it almost effortlessly shows the openings for creative avenue in the tidy one album / one author / 33,000 words format. I have to admit first I've always been slightly underwhelmed by this particular album, often pitched as the greatest live album of all time. That's partly because it took me so long to get to it and by then its reputation had preceded it and I had other James Brown priorities. But Wolk is a fan, a close listener, and a solid researcher. One of his prevailing conceits is noting that the performance was recorded across several days while the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening, an unusually charged historical moment. Wolk finds other intriguing things going on at the same time, including John Cage's 4:33 recording of silence, which Wolk really hopes was at the same exact moment of a peculiar silence in James Brown's Apollo show. I hope so too! Wolk artfully breaks down James Brown's career as the sequential details of the album are encountered in linear fashion. It mimics the album in many small ways. The chapters can be as short as a paragraph or a line, with evocative titles—Sweat, Amateur Night, Yvonne Fair—running down the album that came of a multiple-night stand. It's a good evenhanded take on JB, aware of all his flaws (usually result of unbridled ego) and all his many strengths. Wolk's little book is also a great treatment of how a product comes together, the album as artifact. I like how Wolk seems to notice everything, like the way the album has come with so many variations to its name. He settles on Live at the Apollo and I'm good with that, but the range of variation is remarkable. That's typical of Brown, who always seemed to be working with grooves and their variations. Mashed Potato was a groove. Popcorn was a groove. Cold Sweat, New Bag, Sex Machine—they just kept coming. It feels like Wolk covers it all, and it's full of sharp insight, surprising details, and always an abiding love and awe of JB, a true force of nature, we can see now. One of my favorite things I learned here was that at the height of the album's popularity people were calling in to request it on radio stations—the whole thing: both sides. And the radio stations accommodated them, packing in the ads in the empty patches of the 10-minute "Lost Someone." Hence the beginnings of its reputation. Wolk's treatment of "Lost Someone" is superb, full of information and finding a great way to approximate its imposing length in words and text. I really love it when these 33-1/3 books are good. This is one of the best.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

1 comment:

  1. Another JB book I need to checkout. JB lit is piling up since his death; Kill 'Em and Leave, The One, now this one. I finally caught up with Chadwick Boseman's movies; made a little video movie festival out of it. His portrayal of JB in Get On Up was my favorite.