Thursday, January 12, 2006

Living In North America – James Brown at Casino Rama

Well, better late than never on this…

Last weekend, James Brown made his third Toronto-area appearance of the last 2 years. He played Casino Rama, somewhat north of the city. The show was more than a little surreal - I’d never been to a casino, let alone see my all time favourite recording artist play one.

According to MC Danny Ray we were in Toronto, not Rama, Ontario. Sure Toronto has its urban sprawl, but a 2 ½ hour drive through rush hour traffic and snow goes beyond even the most generous definitions of the Greater Toronto Area.

JB’s been playing casinos since his late-60s Frank Sinatra aspirations (check out Live At The Apollo Vol 2). Of course, the funk has proven to be his legacy and this was likely the most physically demanding show most Rama patrons are ever likely to see. And this was no Vegas funk, it’s the real thing.

Anyone who’s seen JB since 1975, when he billed himself as ‘The Man Who Never Left’, will come out of a show thinking “he’s still got it”, even at age 72. His diction, phasing and overall lung power are still there, he’s light on his feet and has more skill with mic stand acrobatics than David Lee Roth and Prince put together.

His fashion sense is still… his own. His emerald green tux reminded me of an Andy Williams Christmas special I saw last month, right down to the booties. By the second song, he was already sweating hard. My wife Sarah remarked that “does the show end when his sweat stains meet in the middle of his shirt?”. This turned out to be a pretty good estimate.

The current band is the Soul Generals, and featured 2 drummers, bass, tenor sax/trumpet/alto sax, a Neil Peart sized percussion array, and remarkably, 4 guitarists. Sometimes all the guitarists played in unison, but “Doing It To Death” delivered at least 3 interlocking parts that pushed it into King Sunny Ade territory. The Soul Gs don’t sport any stars from back in the day, but lead hornsman Jeff Watkins was very good, adapting Maceo’s style with some interesting harmonic choices. James isn’t singing as much as he used to, so Watkins got a lot of minutes off the bench.. He doesn’t insist on being the multi-instrumentalist of years past, but took a few turns on a thin-sounding Hammond patch on what appeared to be a Yamaha DX7. If this were a funk nouveau band like something in the Daptone orbit, you know there’d be a real Hammond bound in rich Corinthian leather on stage. But this was just one of the many touches that proved he’ll never answer to analog fetishists who would rather see him impersonate his peak period of the 60s and early 70s.. Debris from every decade since the 50s swept up into the James Brown revue, from dance routines to astrology references to 80s-vintage equipment. The pacing is still a huge factor. Would a contemporary funk band stop the show cold for a moment of silence in honour of Lou Rawls? Would there be extended (admittedly less compelling than decades past) jazz and blues setpieces to vary the tempo? All the gear-shifting by the band and backing vocalists made the funk hit harder.

Casino Rama’s entertainment facility is very well appointed, and the mix, sightlines and psychoactive light show contributed favorably to the overall vibe. JB gutted it out for almost an hour and a half, although there was no encore. We were left to contemplate this ad-lib from “Living in America”: “Canada, the United States, you know, it’s all America – North America!” Sir John A. is doing the boogaloo in his grave.


Blogger BobbyG said...

"...And this was no Vegas funk, it’s the real thing..."

Before you go crackin' on "Vegas funk" maybe you oughta check out Santa Fe and The Fat City Horns


I just have to wonder how crushingly good they'd be if they were gigging full time. As it is, they have a one night per week jeans & t-shirts off-night gig together, a respite from their normal work as Vegas show musicians, etc. Check out the CD and DVD samples from their website (links provided, mp3 and Windows Media formats).

These dudes eat Tower of Power, Earth, Wind, & Fire, James Brown, and Bill Champlin for breakfast, and have a total lock on the salsa-funk genre. The torque wrench has yet to be invented that could make their horn section and rhythm section any tighter. Their written charts will make your brain bleed.

8:20 p.m.  

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