JB at the Boston Garden, 1968
NOTE: No music today, just words…but they are “music-related”….
Here are some links to clips on Youtube of the Boston Garden show, and a couple of other killers…
So…I’m sitting around this morning, listening to the rain slam down on the top of the chimney, and feeling bored and tired. The cold that’s been hopping from person to person in our house finally hopped onto me, and my head feels like it’s filled from ear to ear with wheatina.
In an effort to fight the boredom (the Mummers* have been postponed and I cannot watch much of the Rose Parade without wanting to gouge my own eyes out), I dug out a bootleg DVD I have of James Brown playing at the Boston Garden in April of 1968.
It was just a few days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and in an effort to stave off a riot, the local public TV station (WGBH) decided to do a live broadcast of James Brown’s scheduled concert.
As far as I know this has never seen an official release (though audio and video bootlegs have circulated for years), and though the quality of the image – rough 1968-era videotape – leaves a lot to be desired, the concert is nothing less than a revelation.
The performance is explosive, from the moment the band begins vamping on ‘Get It Together’ to Brown’s entrance it is immediately evident that this is about the tightest band that ever was, and that they were putting forth as much energy in 10 minutes as most performers generate in a career.
It is at this point that I must digress for a moment to address the ‘James Brown as tyrant’ meme. JB had a bad reputation for being a harsh taskmaster, fining (and often firing) musicians for the slightest infraction. While I wouldn’t go as far as to completely excuse this behavior (it once rose to the level that almost his entire band beat the retreat en masse), I would suggest that the super-tight, machine gun power of the band – it really must be seen to be believed, with ‘Get It Together’, already a fast moving train, suddenly blasting off like a rocket to Mars, nary a beat out of place – would not have existed without it.
That the band could rise to such a level of precision without sacrificing an iota of their soulful power is incredible. They are playing at a brutal pace, which seems incredibly fast until you actually start to concentrate on it, at which point it becomes simultaneously breathtaking and almost impossible to fully comprehend.
How did they keep it together at such a pace?
How did they not drop dead halfway through the first song, a huge, sweaty pile of aneurysms and heart attacks?
Aside from their considerable skills and talent, was it fear, inspiration, machismo gone completely mad, or a deadly mixture of all three?
Through it all, while moving like a finely tailored and spit-shined tornado, JB takes the time to introduce, and highlight Jimmy Nolen (on guitar…amazing), Maceo Parker (on tenor) and poor, poor St. Clair Pinckney, who carries with him the seemingly impossible task of maintaining this pace with a huge baritone sax hanging from his neck.
When the band – without the slightest hint of a break – snaps into ‘There was a Time’ they take the audience (including all of us almost 40 years hence) to yet another level. Now, I’ll admit that I was watching this while burning off two large cups of coffee, but let me tell you brother, this was fucking EXCITING!**
James is working the band, dancing all over the stage, engaging the audience in verse ending call-and-response, and the effect is – and I know this term is overused, but it applies here – powerful. JB and the band extend the tune far beyond it’s recorded boundaries bringing the energy level up, leveling off, and then going up another step until the audience can barely contain themselves as he Camel Walks across the stage over and over again.
If you ever had any doubt about the power of James Brown – and I don’t know why or how you could, but as the brothers Isley were wont to say, ‘It’s your thing, do watcha wanna do’… – you need to track yourself down a copy of this video***, gather your friends and family (especially any young folks that might have a twisted idea about the comparative worth of your Timberlakes, et al) and make them watch it. Even if you already consider yourself intoxicated by the life and work of James Brown, this will be a life changing experience.
See you later (alligator)
*If you don’t know who/what the Mummers are, Google Mummers and Philadelphia for a glimpse at one of the weirdest, anachronistic traditions in a city that cranks out such things at a blinding pace
**I found myself calling Miles into the room over and over again. “Miles! Come look at what the man is doing!”. I do this a lot, like when I point out the individual Marx Brothers and explain what each one of them does. I know a lot of this is lost on a three-year-old, but someday, these bits of information will emerge from his subconscious, hopefully making him a much cooler teenager.
***I got my copy here, and you should keep in mind that when you get it, you also get to see Marva Whitney, Bobby Byrd and emcee Danny Barker working the crowd. No, I don’t get a cut, and I can vouch for their reliability