After an embarrassingly lackluster set by Angie Stone — who was handpicked by James Brown to open this historic show last Wednesday (Sept. 6) at the Hollywood Bowl — Butane James himself took the stage with a cocksure strut and a royal demeanor, conveying a but-of-course attitude to the crowd’s rapturous ovation. Things immediately went south from there. Brown’s gleaming, perfectly white teeth gave him a Carol Channing effect — “Kanshas shitty woman. . .” — but even that was not the problem. You could get used to that.
The concept behind this sold-out event was to pair Brown’s band with the 17-piece Hollywood Jazz Orchestra — featuring bassist Christian McBride — for a one-off ?re-creation of Brown’s 1970 jazz album Soul on Top. That album was driven by the same self-inflicted insecurities and sidebar hubris that have led talents from Marvin Gaye to André 3000 to breaststroke through jazz waters to prove their creative depth and personal deepness. Recording with the Louie Bellson Orchestra, under the direction of arranger/conductor Oliver Nelson, Soul Brother No. 1 let loose his inner jazzman on songs by Kurt Weill, Hank Williams and Jule Styne, as well as a couple of his own past hits. Released in the spring of 1970, Soul on Top was a fascinating, in places sublime, but also flawed work. Regardless, it was quickly overshadowed by the release of Sex Machine in the fall of 1970.
Flash forward almost 40 years. Teeth aside, what was impossible to overlook on Wednesday night was the fact that the Godfather of Soul was woefully, transparently under-rehearsed. He read off sheet music for much of the jazz material, and was still often lost. (The pristine sound system at the Bowl only underscored this fact.) He fumbled the first verse of “For Once In My Life” so badly — searching haphazardly for the melody, grasping for the lyrics — that when he finally clicked into the song, you could almost hear the audience’s collective, “Aw, so that’s what he’s singing.” And even the jazz orchestra, for the most part providing solid backup, at times crashed into one another in a pileup of notes and miscues — an astonishing thing to witness at a concert by a man notorious for ripping new assholes (and docking pay) for musicians who even slightly screw up onstage. Needless to say, his own band rocked with military precision while serving funked-up familiar grooves during the last quarter of the concert.
Cognizant that he was bringing far less than his A game, the Godfather stooped to gimmicks — breaking into his trademark dance moves apropos of nothing (the crowd ate it up), frequently exhorting the audience to give a big hand to assorted entities — themselves, the band, love itself. He drew a huge laugh when he brought out Louie Bellson to accompany him on drums (in a surprisingly vigorous performance) and then chided the crowd, “Stand up and make him [Bellson] feel proud. He was here before your mama, before your grandmama.”
Still, the evening’s nadir was a performance of “This Better Earth” by guest vocalist Tommy Rae, an overwrought singer who tossed her hair maniacally, struck Statue of Liberty poses and wailed like a banshee. During the funk segment of the show, she stood upstage behind Brown (who happens to be her husband), performing over-the-top, herky-jerky choreography that seemed to be improvised, then pantomiming lyrics as Brown sang them. (Yes, he said the word “cradle,” and she made one with her arms and then rocked it wildly; the crowd roared with accidental laughter.)
What was most frustrating was that the man’s voice is still very much there, and his own band is clearly more than up to the task of delivering mind-blowing performances. But the corny, barely legal dancers (poor man’s Laker girls), the strange pacing of the show and Brown’s obvious indifference to his own material were a sign that maybe it’s time for the legend — the root that sprouted Prince and Michael Jackson, and therefore Usher and Justin Timberlake — to simply sit it out and take it easy. As a woman said in the parking lot after the show, “It’s just hard to see a champ falter.”