(Jerome-Duncan Ford Theatre, Sterling Heights, MI - June 4th, 2004)
"Soul Brother Number One," the "Godfather of Soul," the "Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Mr. Dynamite" - those are mighty titles, but no one can question that James Brown has earned them more than any other performer.
He was one of the figures most responsible for turning R&B into soul; he was, most would agree, the figure most responsible for turning soul music into the funk of the late '60s and early '70s. Since the mid-'70s, he's done little more than tread water artistically; his financial and drug problems eventually got him a controversial prison sentence. Yet in a sense his music is now more influential than ever, as his voice and rhythms have been sampled on innumerable rap and hip-hop recordings, and critics have belatedly hailed his innovations as among the most important in all of rock or soul.
Tonight at the once-named Freedom Hill, now re-named Jerome-Duncan Ford Theatre in Sterling Heights, Brown kicked off their summer season with a broad grin and some lightning-fast dance shuffles. Advanced on stage by a full nine minutes by his 8-piece backing band complete with a Morris Day-lookalike ring master supreme, eventually we are introduced to "the Godfather of Soul himself", "ladies and gentlemen, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business ... Mr. James Brown".
Sauntering in from stage left, dressed in a white suit with a black shirt and shiny black leather shoes, Brown still looks the part. Trading vocal parts with his younger male back-up singer, Brown performs his trademark mic stand dip and pull back before swaying his way through 'Soul Man' and 'Living In America'. Asking the crowd if it was okay if he got "... a little bit funky", Brown proceeds to thrill the less-than-half-full outdoor crowd with his yelps and shoe shuffles galore.
Playing keyboards as well as chatting constantly to the young, very young deer-in-headlights white guitarist, Brown allows all his band to have moments in the spotlight at some stage. Not only that, but during a handful of the songs two nubile, and ultra fit female dancers come on to back him ... aerobic workout-style! Asking us if we "... feel good" he then breaks into another of his trademark tunes, before screaming "yeah" four times followed by "soul" six times, and then going into 'It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World' to the delight of the crowd.
As we head to the finale of the night, Brown now has a tendency to sing a few lyrics, drop his microphone to the stage with a thunk, kneel down and await the coverage of a glittery silver or red cape from lookalike Day! 'I'll Go Crazy,' '(I Got You) I Feel Good' is followed by 'Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine' and under the glow of the orange and green lights the set is brought to a close. No goodnight, no wave, no nothing!
It's probably safe to assume that Brown will not make any more important recordings, but his music is probably more popular in the American mainstream today than it has been since the 1970s. And tonight Brown showed that although he may be a few steps behind his once glorious showmanship self, that he still knows how to entertain like no other.
Reviewed by Russell A. Trunk