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This is Star Time!

 

James Brown: Live at the Apollo (1962) [Expanded Edition]

Polydor, 2004

Rating: 5.0

 

 

Posted: April 2, 2004

By Laurence Station

October 24th, 1962, was an unseasonably cold night in New York City, but those waiting to get into Harlem's Apollo Theater didn't seem to mind. James Brown was making his seventh appearance at the venue; his fifth as a headliner. What made this particular evening different, however, was Brown's insistence on taping the show, an idea in which his label boss, Syd Nathan, had little faith. Nathan believed Brown's strength was in singles, and that no one would pay to hear a James Brown concert recording, when they could see the exciting artist in person. Besides, radio stations played singles, not entire live performances.

Undeterred, Brown paid for the recording himself and, obviously, knew what he was doing. Live at the Apollo is one of the greatest live albums in the history of popular music, despite being barely over thirty minutes long. Brown and his backing band tear through the entertainer's most popular cuts with a frenzied yet controlled intensity that's truly amazing to hear. With a completely remastered and expanded edition of the legendary set, Live at the Apollo is now available to a whole new generation of listeners and, thanks to greatly enhanced fidelity (conveying a foot-of-stage immediacy and crispness of sound that puts prior pressings to shame) and a budget-friendly price, it's an absolute must-buy for owners of earlier vinyl or CD versions.

Lucas "Fats" Gonder's famous "Are you ready for Star Time?" introduction, followed by the band playing a shorter arrangement of "The Scratch," kicks the evening off in rousing fashion. But it's not until the crowd screams that you know "Mr. Dynamite" has taken the stage, and that the real show is about to begin. Aside from being a charismatic master showman, Brown is a genius set manager, seamlessly moving things along from the manic fervor of "I'll Go Crazy" to the deep-hearted croon of his 1958 number one hit "Try Me," leading the band through complicated polyrhythmic arrangements via dynamically precise vocal intonations, not unlike an orchestra conductor using his wand.

"Lost Someone" affords Brown an opportunity to show off his impressive range, highlighted by a dramatic shift to a lower register, eliciting orgiastic squeals of delight from his female fans. Restively reigned-in saxophone players and Dickie Wells' bottomless trombone perfectly complement the free-ranging tempo. Standout moments from Brown's medley include the tremulous organ on "I Love You, Yes I Do" and Les Buie's sinewy guitar playing during "Stranger Things."

The expanded edition adds four single edits of songs from the show, which obviously fit quite nicely into Syd Nathan's plan for Brown's releases. But the album is best heard in the larger context of the entire performance. Indeed, DJs of the day would play select cuts during the afternoon rotation, and then honor requests for the entire performance at night, when commercial airtime was less stringently controlled. Other than fleshing out the historical record of the show, the four cuts offer little to the overall package: Live at the Apollo is best heard straight through.

While nothing will ever completely recapture the feeling felt by 1,500 lucky fans crammed into the venerable theater on 125th Street on that chilly, late October night, Live at the Apollo in its current incarnation comes as close as a non-participant is likely to get to hearing Brown at his glorious, pre-funk height.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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