Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Masters: James Brown - Best Live Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.

For May The Masters focuses on James Brown.

The Godfather himself, James Brown. He is the visionary artist who helped invent funk and hip-hop as he floated through the amazingly influential waters of time and his mind. Mr. Please Please Me is iconic and moved from The Famous Flames to Soul Brother #1 to the Godfather with ease as he aged.

He however joins the likes of Miles when RtBE is conflicted about the art and the artist. Longform collected just a few pieces on him, but it is safe to say we are confused with our love for the mans music and thoughts on his personal life. That said, we wrote about our feelings on the man when he passed away for Glide as he had a huge influence on our musical ears.  

Today we focus on his live albums, and while we ranked his studio recordings already this month, this is where he really butters the biscuits. When RtBE goes to the James Brown collection nine times out of ten it is for one of these records. That said there is always a bit of controversy with Brown, were all of these actually recorded live?  Hmmm... 

Any which way let's get to it, below we rank the top five James Brown live records. 

We are starting the list with one of Brown's best albums, but it is hard to rank this album any higher on our list of "live albums" because almost all of the first disk on this double album was recorded in studio with dubbed in extra reverb and applause. While that is lame, the playing is hot and heavy throughout the opening disk, especially on the title-track-kick-ass tune which is different than the single Brown released as his best core band of Bootsy, Catfish, Jabo and Stubblefield were all on hand. The studio track take on the closing of the first disks "Give It Up or Turnit Loose" is a whopper as well. 

The second disk is live...well mostly, he snuck in a studio "Lowdown Popcorn" into the mix, but the rest of the set was captured at The Bell Auditorium in Atlanta, GA and the popping opening combo of "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)" and "Licking Stick" is fucking grand as the man and band gets after it. Brown nods to his soul crooning past with "It's a Man's Man's Man's World", "Please, Please, Please" but by late 1970 the funk has taken over and the set ends with the jubilant rollicking "Mother Popcorn" with funky horns and Sweet Charles Sherrell killer bass run which seems like it could go on forever. 

RtBE debated putting this on the best of studio list, but decided to use the true live half and kick start this list. Live, studio, it doesn't matter, Sex Machine is worth checking out.

#4 Live at The Apollo Vol 2 (1968)

The last record James Brown and The Famous Flames would release as a group was this live double as Brown returned to his most popular performing venue the Apollo for round two. This is also a fun transitional time for Brown moving from soul crooner and shouter into the funky soul brother he would become.

The opening duet on "Think" with Marva Whitney is fresh as he trades lines before the slow soulful numbers of "I Wanna Be Around" and "That's Life" prove Mr. Dynamite still had it but things pick up for the funky rocking of "Kansas City" before the clear highlight of the record. The centerpiece is the funked up medley which finds Brown interacting with the crowd while the band moves through the funky waters of "Let Yourself Go" "There Was a Time" and especially "I Feel All Right" before arriving at "Cold Sweat". These twenty minutes are exploring the future of Brown and funk as a whole and they are still exhilarating today.

The album wraps up with Brown looking back over soul burners he was already outgrowing, "Bring It Up (Hipster's Avenue)" (includes intro of Famous Flames Bobby Byrd & Bobby Bennett) "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and "Please, Please, Please" the last of which he did a touch better on....

#3 Live at The Apollo (1963)
This is the album which broke James Brown out onto a national scene almost wasn't released. with Brown and his manager pressured the label and they finally relented and released it only to find overwhelming demand. The music contained found him hot from years on the Chitlin' Circuit with The Famous Flames, his 50's act and early 60's band had been perfected a perfect live show. The energy radiating is palpable and like our pick for best live blues album, the crowd is into it and Brown feeds off them especially during the long soul screeching "Lost Someone".

"Try Me" finds Brown stretching his vocals as far as they could go while the rip roaring medley is still a must listen to see the power sweat and grit of this group back in 1962. Ending with "Night Train" the album is a stone cold classic and a perfect capturing of Brown's first important musical phase. Years ago it would have easily topped our list, but since then a few vault-ish live concerts have been released which surpass the classic.

Such a fantastic capturing of Brown and his band doing their thang in '68. Brown opens with some of his best recorded singing on "If I Ruled The World" with dramatic string backing and completely smokes it before thanking the crowd and introducing his newest tune "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud". While the funk is obviously there, the singing looms large as some of Browns ultimate highlights vocally.

But the music is the main draw...and the group is on point, Richard "Kush" Griffith – trumpet Waymon Reed – trumpet Levi Rasbury – valve trombone Fred Wesley – trombone Maceo Parker – tenor sax, emcee Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis – bandleader, alto saxophone, organ St. Clair Pinckney – tenor and baritone sax, duet voice on "Licking Stick-Licking Stick" Jimmy Nolen – guitar Alphonso "Country" Kellum – bass guitar Sweet Charles Sherrell – bass on "I Can't Stand Myself" Clyde Stubblefield – drums Nate Jones – drums Richard Jones – violin Marilyn Jones – violin Sylvia Medford – violin.

The set list is a beast as the group grooves with passion and power, reviling in the new found funk. The players cover everything amazingly, there is just one show which rates higher for RtBE....

#1 Love Power Peace (1971)
Here is the best band Brown ever played with and if Maceo had been there it would be impossible to have gotten better. James Brown - vocals, organ Bobby Byrd - MC, vocals, organ Darryl "Hasaan" Jamison - trumpet Clayton "Chicken" Gunnells - trumpet Fred Wesley - trombone St. Clair Pinckney - tenor saxophone Phelps "Catfish" Collins - lead guitar Hearlon "Cheese" Martin - rhythm guitar William "Bootsy" Collins - bass guitar John "Jabo" Starks - drums Don Juan "Tiger" Martin - drums David Matthews - director of additional horns, strings...yeah that's pretty fucking solid.

Woof that is a murders row of funk. This hour and five minute release just pulses with life, speed, energy and soul. "The Brother Got To Rap" indeed, but the drum tight playing behind him is fucking dynamite. From the get go they are locked in, "Ain't It Funky Now" just bubbles with Bootsy's bass and Catfish's riffs; the Collins brothers kill it.

The groove the players lock into, lead by Brown, just ignites all the tracks to pure fire, "It's A New Day, So Let A Man Come In", "Sex Machine". "Super Bad", "Soul Power" the list goes on and on, pick any song from this set and enjoy. When RtBE wants to hear James Brown this is the record we reach if only their was a vinyl reissue...

How did we do? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let us know your favorites in the comments. 

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