Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On DVD: "James Brown: Body Heat- Live In Monterey 1979"

Newly re-released on DVD, the 1979 special James Brown: Body Heat catches “The Godfather of Soul” live in Monterey, with a performance that doesn’t quite match the sheer force of his 1960s shows, but comes pretty damn close. Brown’s live performances were justifiably legendary, a boiling mix of tight instrumentation, energetic vocals, inimitable dancing, and extraordinary showmanship; many of them thankfully made their way to vinyl, but there’s frustratingly few films of the “James Brown Revue.” 2008 saw the release of the indispensible I Got The Feelin': James Brown in the ‘60s, as well as the slightly less impressive Double Dynamite, a collection of two 1980s TV performances (after Brown was rather past his prime). Last year marked, at long last, the release of T.A.M.I. Show, with a show-stopping, name-making Brown set; now we have Body Heat, which catches Brown at what would turn out to be the end of an era.

The disc begins with a rousing performance of “Get Up Offa That Thing,” which finds JB in great voice and good spirits. He’s moving well too, immediately at home and doing his thing, and the band matches him well—the back-up singers are a little corny, but the horns are on fire. His jacket is already off by the next number, “Body Heat,” and Brown gets a little raunchier with his distinctive dance moves.

Throughout the show, the band tends to crash right from one killer number to the next; Brown was never much for stage patter, and there aren’t too many surprises in this set list, so they tend to just get on with it. His sassy, soulful rendition of “Try Me” is just a little bluesier than usual, and he’s covered in sweat by the end of it, but he proceeds headlong into a blistering performance of “Sex Machine” that is extra funky—and extra long too, clocking in just shy of twenty minutes. His band is on fire here, wailing away with fire and precision while Brown engages in some spirited scat singing, as well as his trademark call-and-response. And no, as Eddie Murphy hilariously noted, you can’t understand a word of it; he’s almost comically indecipherable.

After that extended groove, the band slows it down for a scorching cover of “Georgia on My Mind,” only to bring it back to full speed with a swinging “Please Please Please.” Ever the showman, Brown does his famed exit/return bit before launching into the disco-infused “Hindsight,” which features his tremendous back-and-forth with the mic stand. He’s back out in a new white suit for the toe-tapping “Can’t Stand It,” before moving into “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” On that penultimate number, his enthusiasm drops noticeably—this may be the one song he’s genuinely tired of doing. After a short jam by the band, Brown is out, bringing the hyperactive 60-minute show to a close.

There are some worrisome presentational elements in James Brown: Body Heat, and the photography and direction of the special are no great shakes either; Brown is mostly kept in tight, closed-in mediums that become somewhat claustrophobic. We’re a good two or three songs in before we even see the rest of the stage, and never really get a sense of Brown’s environment. The audience is all but forgotten by the cameras as well—Brown could really work a crowd, but you’d never know it from this disc. All of those things said, do any of them ultimately matter? Not really. Body Heat is James Brown, in concert, circa 1979. Who am I to complain?

"James Brown: Body Heat- Live In Monterey 1979" is available now on DVD. For full A/V details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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