|June 30, 1998|
| The red-tuxedoed band and the green-spangled backup singers were already in place and factotum extraordinaire Danny Ray was doing his patented "The Godfather of Soul! The Hardest Working Man in Show Business!" rap as we rushed down the darkened aisles of the Theater at Madison Square Garden, plastic champagne glasses in hand, looking for our seats, anyone's seats, just a place to get our asses down before--"James Brown! James Brown!" Then the man himself strides on stage: green polyester suit, pompadour already beginning to flop like wet licorice, grinning the grin of a man who's never had a doubt in his life.
What happens when you first lay eyes upon James Brown? Well, let me explain it this way: the reason fish can bear to be in such tiny tanks is because their brains are only big enough to remember the last seven seconds. A fish is always going "What is this place? It's wet, it seems big. Hey! I just bumped into something! I don't think I like---What is this place?...." Well, that's similar to the sensation of beholding the Godfather in full glory. Every seven seconds or so, whatever thought is coagulating within your skull is blown out by the stunning realization--"Damn! That's James Brown!"
Accompanying him are a phalanx of dancers in scanty red spandex (the entire extravaganza has a strangely Christmas-y color scheme) fitting their flygirl moves plausibly enough into the JB continuum, though it was strange to see "Mr. Please Please Please" surrounded by gyrating pierced navels as he launched into (what else) "I Got You ( I Feel Good) ." The crowd surged forward, was repelled by security, shuffled back a few steps and began shaking in the aisles.
Sure, the depletion of cartilage in his knees means James Brown can no longer literally "get down," but, geez, the footwork--every toe seeming to shimmy in a different direction. And the way he drops that mic and whips it back up like a yo-yo or a woman playing hard to get--children, many have tried, but none can match it. His voice is still a yowl of unrepentant hedonism, but what I found most impressive was the way he conducts the band. He doesn't even conduct: he controls with the left fist clenched and down, the right palm open and out, the flamenco in his feet setting the beat for three (!) drummers while following it at the same time.
And, with that, comes our first round of homage, to be paid by none other than, you guessed it: the Rev. Al Sharpton. The former mayoral candidate strolls out, "James thing" coiffure solidly in place and looking like he's come from a big dinner at Junior's, to say a few appropriately reverent words, after which he begins shrieking "You think a preacher can't dance!? You think a preacher can't dance?!" before busting into his own less-nimble but passable rendition of the "James thing" shoe-shaking. A few members of the audience were shocked, more were thrilled, and the rest of us nearly died laughing.
But enough a' that because James Brown is back on stage, and, after the first few seconds of fish-memory, you're sucked back into the groove of a seemingly endless medley of all the Godfather's hits--a line from this one, a horn break from another, back to three seconds of the first song, and on to yet another. You get the dazed feeling of a boxer against the ropes as "Sex Machine" hits you from the left and "Hot Pants" slams you on the right and then "Popcorn" whams you in the gut. And there you are, punch-drunk and overwhelmed by the splendor and--wait, what the f$%k is this? A big, bleached Taylor Dane-wannabe (and what a sad, sad thing to wannabe) is led out from the wings by James and commanded to render us some Janis Joplin. And he walks off stage, leaving us with this thing belting out "Try" to DAT accompaniment while the world's tightest soul band stands idle, looking on pityingly. Finally, it stopped and the crowd, shrieking in earnest, made another push and was pushed back as JB returned in all his glory.
Then, as if to appease us for enduring the previous mediocre guest stars, Isaac Hayes strolled out--Damn! That's Chef!--to present JB with some kind of "98.7 Kiss Legends of Soul" plaque (I guess they think James Brown needs some kind of laminated documentation of that). Speeches, gratitude, applause, more gratitude. The big payoff came when James and Isaac (with a little help from Danny Ray) launched into a duet of Sam and Dave's (no, not Elwood and Jake's) "Soul Man." His departure precipitated a more sedate interlude, as we were cooled off with "It's a Man's World." The song's mixture of unbearable pain and implacable dignity was marred by the return of one of the flygirls, now clad in a purple nightgown and doing some kind of wack barefoot neo-ballet. Then again, James did the same thing on "Solid Gold" when I was a kid; I guess I'd be disappointed if it didn't happen now.
At this point, security finally surrendered to the will of the masses and allowed us all to leap forward and sit at the Godfather's flying feet, adding our strength to his own mighty force. James Brown pressed the hands of the faithful (including the one with which I now type this so, yes, you too have now been touched by the Godfather of Soul) and continued giving his usual 210 percent. Finally, almost two hours after it began, Danny Ray brought out the first of the sacred raiments, and the cape was draped over the staggering Mr. Brown, who, as he has done so many times before, flung it aside, allowing us one more round with the man whose arms may well be long enough to box with god. And, as he was helped off the stage for the last time, staggering under the last cape, all I could think was: "Damn! That was James Brown!"