Live at the Apollo
Rating: 8 (library disc)
When I read reviewers calling the Who's Live at Leeds the best live album ever, I've got to wonder: have they heard this album (or Wings Over America for that matter)? Because this is an astonishing recording, completely outclassing the Who in its energy, commitment, complexity, cohesion, and vocal talent.
James Brown is probably most familiar as Mr. Grunt-and-Groan, but he didn't develop that style until a couple years after this record, on which he sings, with a fervor that sounds absolutely inspired. He can croon like a Platter ("I Don't Mind"), he can belt out the dance numbers ("Think"), but most of all he can play the crowd like an instrument. Listen to him on the lengthy "Lost Someone" (which never gets boring in all of its ten minutes because of his grip on the listener): he goes from jerking out the tears, into a hysterical rage, whips up the audience with call-and-response, then lulls them into rapt silence as he fades on "weaker, weaker, weaker", then startles everyone (including the band) with a full-force scream.
Not only is James Brown an incredible singer, his band is unbelievable. It's huge, with nine pieces, yet they play with delicate nuance and devotion to the material. Their skill is most impressive in the long medley. Unlike most medleys, where varying material is crammed into a single key and tempo, this strings together songs with a widely diverging moods and beats, changing from ballad to twist at the drop of a hat, all at Brown's cue. And yet the band never drops the beat or plays off key. It's the most impressive live record I know simply for this feat. But they're also impressive in subtler ways. "Lost Someone" finds the horn section dropping different vamps into the arrangement based on the vocal: when he's getting romantic, they slip into a lower register, and when he's frantic, they switch to staccato bursts. They never let a moment of silence go by, either - when Brown is catching his breath they throw in short interludes to keep the crowd hopping.
The Famous Flames, Brown's backing singers, are unfortunately stuck with some cliched early-60's harmonies, and the closing "Night Train" is taken at a fast tempo that robs it of its groove, but otherwise, I can't think of a single weak moment on this disc.
Don't tell me about "Amazing Journey"; James Brown takes the listener on one throughout Live at the Apollo!
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