On June 14th, 1997 I drove with a crew of friends to Montreal to see a free James Brown concert.
Not to be confused with a “Free James Brown” concert. Those had become wholly redundant six years previously when The Godfather of Soul made parole. No, this was a free concert – gratis if you will – as part of something called Rockfest Montréal, a two-week stint of no-charge concerts taking place outside the Place des Arts.
We arrived and parked somewhere and after a short walk we found ourselves at the concert site, along with about 500,000 other people. Literally.
A legend like James Brown kicking it down in a music-loving city like Montréal is obviously going to pull out the crowds, but this was ridiculous! There was nary a nook nor cranny in any direction that was not full of people. Though the concert took place right in the middle of the street you couldn’t see an inch of asphalt anywhere, just happy people dancing to the most authentic funk music on the planet.
And how could they not? It’s true that James Brown is the consummate showman, with the capes, the banter, the “I can’t go on…” schtick where his handlers all but carry the spent singer off the stage before he jumps up and takes whatever groove his band is in to new heights. But James Brown has lots of steak to go with all that sizzle. He’s the realist of deals; an incredible, unique talent whose legend would be solidified even without his uncanny, almost sermon-like ability to captivate and control every room he faces.
Even one that holds a half a million people.
Oh, and the groove? James Brown is a notorious authoritarian who keeps his band on their toes…it probably makes for a tough gig but man, James Brown keeps his band tight. They sound like funk machines up there, rigorously sticking to their appointed lines without an inch of room to move. But when the boss gives them the nod and lets them cut loose these guys can really burn; all of them.
James Brown’s ability to find musicians with both chops and that kind of discipline is almost Springsteen-esque and it has the same effect; the sound is just so solid.
And you know, despite all the people that were there we found a pretty good spot for the show. Though we weren’t in the midst of the dance party that was happening in front of the stage we had room to get our groove on and were still close enough to see James Brown cast off cape after cape as he rebounded from exhaustion like a pro wrestler that somehow finds the energy to climb back into the ring.
And despite the fact that he’s been pulling the same gag for years and everybody knows it he still had the whole crowd eating out of his hand until the very last note.
Good God, indeed.