James Brown: Live at Montreux 1981

James Brown - Live at Montreux 1981Synopsis: One of the defining elements of James Brown’s career has always been his electrifying live shows and his performances at Montreux give ample evidence of this. This DVD focuses on his appearance at the 1981 festival and is undeniably one of his finest concerts with classic versions of It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good) and Sex Machine.

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James Brown: Live at Montreux 1981 8.0

eyelights: James Brown’s stage presence. that infectious funky music.
eyesores: the poor video quality and camera work.

On July 5, 1981, The Godfather of Soul went to Switzerland for a performance at the world famous Montreux Jazz Festival (This may seem discrepant at first glance, but festivals rarely stick to their roots – case-in-point, 1981 saw the Stray Cats and Mike Oldfield also perform at Montreux. At least Brown has a horn section!).

I’m no great fan of Brown. I’ve given his music a few listens but found that it was always best in moderation – just like punk music, his funk numbers sound very similar after a while (to me, at least, being a novice). My all-time favourite JB number is in ‘The Blues Brothers‘, if that says anything at all.

But I have listened to a few of his albums, and found ‘The Payback’ quite good (especially the title track). I was also rather impressed with his soundtrack to the movie ‘Black Caesar’ – it was by far the highlight of the film, which made me want to go out and buy the CD (I promise to, when I finally see it  somewhere).

When I saw this Montreux CD/DVD set for peanuts, I grabbed it. James Brown has garnered the nickname of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” and, based on what I’d seen in ‘The Blues Brothers’, he was also one of the best performers in Show Business. I was curious to see just how that translated to a full show.

Brown’s concert took place at the Montreux Casino, as did all of the artists on this nearly three week-long festival. I never would have guessed: based on the concrete structures around the stage, I was under the impression that this was held in an arena; you couldn’t possibly get a less glitzy set-up.

Having said this, the picture quality was low-grade. I would have to imagine that such films were recorded on video, not film, during this era and the definition is really poor: details are lacking and everything lacks luster. So it’s quite possible that the venue’s better features were lost in translation.

The programme begins abruptly, right on stage, with James Brown’s 14-piece backing band, The J.B.’s, setting the stage for his appearance: with the help of the three background vocalists, the lead guitarist (and part-time MC, it appears), sang Brown’s name over and over until he walked onto the stage, clad in a red suit.

…and immediately kicked the show into high gear.

1. Payback: The opening number from (and highlight of) JB’s iconic 1973 album ‘The Payback’, this one starts with a funky guitar lick accompanied by keyboard noodling and a drum beat. It’s a long-ish jam that ends abruptly when the next song begins. At the start, JB’s already sweating profusely and he’s just singing. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had a medical condition, because that can’t be normal. His vocals are top notch here. I couldn’t understand a word, but it’s awesome anyway. Halfway through, he started kicking.  All I could think, was: “Geezus… he’s gonna sweat like crazy now!”. During this track, we notice that there are three lit panels on stage below JB. Not sure why, though. Was this Brown’s stage set up or was this Montreux’s doing? Either way, this was a terrific start to the show. 8.5

2. It’s Too Funky in Here: This minor hit is from 1979’s ‘The Original Disco Man’. Shows how little I know about JB, because I never thought of him as a Disco Man at all – let alone the “original one”. Joke. I know it’s just posturing. I’m not too keen on the song’s chorus, but the rhythm is superb. JB starts to screech on this track. Dear God… listen to that voice! Only Prince can best him – and mostly because he’s got so much more range. JB gets more animated here, shaking his head about, and doing a split (not bad for nearly fifty years old!). He looks crazy, totally disheveled after this. Although it has a nice groove, the song is repetitious. What makes this fun is watching JB lose hi $#!t. 7.5

3. Gonna Have a Funky Good Time: This number, which is culled from his 1973 album ‘Doing It to Death’ (which was also the original name of this song, b-t-w), is a bit more upbeat; it has a nice bass groove. It’s a simple song and is appropriately short. It’s an anthem, really, in that JB keeps repeating the same words over and over again. He looks nuts, all sweaty and dishevelled – and it’s only the 3rd song! He’s really into it, lost in the music. 8.0

4. Try Me: 1958’s “Try Me” is of one James Brown’s biggest selling singles. It’s a slow R+B love song, driven by horns. Personally, I wasn’t enamoured with it, but the performance was wicked: halfway through, JB started listing off all the astrological signs and people reacted to each of them. I don’t know what that was about; it seems so leftfield. And was it spontaneous, or calculated? Whatever the case be, it certainly spruced things up. 7.5

5. Get on the Good Foot: JB man doesn’t let up one bit, kicking into this hit before the last song even has a chance to end. Who needs a break between songs? The ballad was the break. This is high energy, horn-based funk, with pretty good bass too and a cool instrumental breakdown. Every single time that you think the song is slowing down it kicks right back up. Wicked. This number features rudimentary choreography between JB and The J.B.’s, which consists of him walking around more than anything else and them following along. He also slams his arms a lot. By the time the song’s done, he’s stripped to his vest (and he ain’t wearing no shirt underneath. Rrrowr…).

6. It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World: JB bridges into this #1 hit by shouting “So! So! So! So! So!” many times over, before really getting started. This is a classic song, even if the lyrics are super chauvinistic. Listen to that melody! Those horns and keys! This is such a perfect song, musically: it must have gotten him a lot of action. At one point he falls to his knees as he pleads “Help me somebody”. Listen to that voice! This is the best showcase of his vocals so far.

For some reason, JB decided to pay tribute to musicians who died tragically, such as Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon (for whom he asks for 30 secs of silence). Whenever he’d call out a name he’d urge the crowd to clap – all the while the band continued jamming. He introduced his lead guitarist for a solo, but his guitar died out mere seconds after he got started. He later got his other guitarist to do a solo, before stopping abruptly.

The crowd was divided: half of them were seemingly bored, while the other half cheered appreciatively. This was pretty lengthy: by this point, we were 43 minutes into the 70-minute show – with still eight songs to go! Of particular note is the director’s decision to use footage shot from behind the drummer’s butt instead of another camera. What? Was Ass-Cam a thing in the ’80s? Or was the director merely incompetent? 8.5

7. Prisoner of Love: JB had a big hit with this cover of the crooner classic. For the show it’s very brief, more like a bridge than a song proper. There’s not much to it; it ends almost as quickly as it starts. 7.0

8. I Got the Feelin’: This funky, horn-geared ditty was a #1 hit in 1968. This version was also super short and, like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”, it begins with repetitious vocals – this time from the backup singers singing “Baby, baby, baby” over and over again. The highlight of the performance is a choreographed bit featuring most of the band – JB in tandem with the background vocalists, and the horns sort of doing their own thing. 7.5

9. Hustle!!! (Dead on it): JB starts this by asking “What is it?”, a few times. No one answers (possibly because they, like myself, were left quizzical, having no idea what he was asking). So he answered himself: “It’s hustle time!”. Then the band broke into the song. It was really funky stuff, if (again) brief. At one point JB gives his band directions before kicking into an instrumental jam. What was amusing was to see how, despite how groovy this was, this pretty blonde audience member just couldn’t seem to find her groove. Ha! I know, it happens. But it shouldn’t happen at a JB concert. And the director shouldn’t make that the focus of his attention. Surely there were other lovely ladies out there! Ones that had their groove on! Who was this bozo? 7.5

10. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag: After a short intro from the MC/guitarist, this Grammy-winning song merges into the end of the last one. Frankly, I never really got this track. I don’t hate it, but I don’t care for it either; it couldn’t leave me more indifferent. What’s cool here is that, after doing some back and forth calls with the background vocalists, JB breaks into his classic steps, slides and splits. Wicked fun! Too bad the camera goes behind the stage halfway through, blocking our view. No joke! 7.5

11. I Got You (I Feel Good): JB’s biggest hit and most recognizable tune, it unfortunately only gets a 90-second treatment here – and in double-time, too! Was it because it started with a male fan coming in for a very long hug with the man (I guess he wasn’t just popular with the ladies)? It certainly wasn’t because of the Montreux crowd, who just stood there, unmoved (Was it not jazzy enough? Not white enough? What? What? How can you not be blown away by this song, even in a truncated form?). 7.5

12. Please, Please, Please: This was JB’s first hit, back in 1956, when he fronted The Famous Flames. It’s become a staple of his act, which eventually evolved to include a moment when he feigns exhaustion and one of the band members comes over and covers his shoulders with a cape. Here, he takes off the cape and steps down in front of the stage to be closer to the crowd. Sadly, security, cameramen and photographers are between them. At the end he walks off to the rhythm while the MC signs him off in English and French (of note, his French is actually pretty good). 7.5

13. Jam: For the title track of 1978’s ‘Jam 1980’s’ (seriously), JB’s changed into a black jumpsuit ornate with gold trim. It’s an okay song, but there isn’t enough JB to go with the jam: All he sings (with the help of the background vocalists, needless to say) is “Jam! Jam! Jam!”. Oh and he pays tribute to Bowie. The band is really into it, probably because the long instrumental passage showed them off, with one of the trumpet players jumping around with JB. The band does all the work here. Wow, the front of the crowd is wild, and security’s struggling. JB goes out to shake hands with few concertgoers at the end. 7.0

14. Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine: Another big hit for JB and great closer for his show, JB starts “Sex Machine” by goading the crowd to “Get on up!”. This is a funky mid-tempo number, focused on bass and guitar. He ends it by singing ‘Party! Party!” over and over, before doing splits and blowing kisses to the crowd. The MC calls out to the crowd and the band jams through the final moments. 7.5

And that’s it! Unsurprisingly, this programme wraps up just about as abruptly as it started.

Again, I don’t know who the director was, but this was a botched job to say the least. Ass-Cams, blocking our view, focusing on the lame parts of the audience, and cutting in and out of the show with no lead in or out is the work of an utter amateur and/or a total moron. I hate to be harsh, but it’s pretty bad.

The only thing that saves this show is the raw power of James Brown, who gives an electrifying performance all the way through. I have no idea if he was at the height of his powers then (I suspect he’d peaked a decade prior), but this is a pretty damned good show. Imagine if he could do better!

I’m still no great fan of Brown’s, but this is well worth watching: there’s enough diversity in his act to make up for the repetition in his music – and vice-versa. And at 70-minutes in length, he doesn’t overstay his welcome nor did he short-change his audience. The man knew how to entertain. He was a pro.

The songs don’t all do that much for me, but I think that part of the problem lies in the latter part of the show, when the songs don’t get their full due. Since JB rams through them briskly, they’re only okay individually. However, collectively, as medley of sorts, they make for an awesome combination.

‘Live at Montreux 1981’ hasn’t made a convert of me, but it did get me to revisit a few albums, and listened to the companion live CD (sadly, for some reason, it is cropped – even though it could all have fit on a CD). I also read the enthusiastic, if ill-informed and/or disingenuous, liner notes that came along with it.

I know I will play this again. And I would most certainly recommend it – despite it being hobbled by poor direction.

Post scriptum: An amusing thought occurred to me after watching it. Given his predilection for instrumental jams, I would have loved for him to tackle “Smoke on the Water”. Tongue-in-cheek, I know, but a funky James Brown rendition of this classic would certainly have perked up my ears some.

Date of viewing: June 28, 2014

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