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James Brown in concert: I Feel ... Strange

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

The sheer cultural intensity of the first six months of 1984 – a crossroads of the Boomer and Gen X eras – is hard to grasp to this day. Run-DMC’s first album debuted in March that year, and Tina Turner came out of nowhere to launch her remarkable second career with Private Dancer in May.

Then came a stunning succession of iconic releases within three weeks in June: Springsteen’s Born In The USA, the movies Ghostbusters and Karate Kid, and Prince’s movie and album Purple Rain. Even baseball experienced a renaissance in June 1984, when Chicagoans celebrated one of the most transformative games in the 144-year history of the Cubs: the "Ryne Sandberg Game" on June 23rd.

But one of my favorite memories from 1984 occurred a few months later and couple of relay throws north of the Cubs’ home at Wrigley Field. Deep under 1984’s rising ocean of all-time greatness – and fighting hard not to get swallowed in a cultural subduction zone - the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” took the stage 36 years ago tonight at the Cabaret Metro.

Of course, I knew James Brown’s hit songs from radio and scratchy used vinyl. Like millions of others, I saw him inspire the Blues Brothers to “put the band back together” as Reverend Cleophus James. I knew about Brown’s indispensable influence on many genres of music. In those pre-internet days, however, the only practical way to experience a legend – to understand for yourself what all the drama was about – was to buy a ticket to a live show. That made it an obligation for me to see James Brown that night.

A couple of months before this show at the Metro, he collaborated with Afrika Bambaattaa to record "Unity", released on the Tommy Boy label. My friend Tom Silverman, the founder of Tommy Boy Entertainment, told me this week about the project that summer: “Though Mr. Brown – as he insisted on being called – was at the absolute bottom of his career, his ego was still beyond anything ever experienced."

So what was it like to see that James Brown perform live? He performed a full set, backed by a band so large I had neither enough desire nor enough fingers to tally up how many people were on stage. And in hindsight, his show on September 9, 1984 ranks as one of the most enlightening and also one of the most frustrating concerts I have ever seen.

The medium is the message

There is a statement on the Universal Music’s James Brown website that applies to that evening long ago: “JAMES BROWN is a concept, a vibration, a dance. It’s not me, the man. JAMES BROWN is a freedom I created for humanity.” Put another way, the show’s content itself doesn’t matter as much as the man’s presence. That is my memorable lesson from that night: for better or worse, James Brown himself is always the message. Independent of any song, the mere opportunity to watch James Brown command the stage, command the music, and command the dance makes the night fascinating.

That’s fortunate, too, because from a pure content standpoint, the night was endlessly frustrating. It was like going into a theater expecting a full-length feature film, and getting a couple hours of trailers instead. He stopped, started, and teased incessantly. He revealed just enough of the “wow” to make you want more, then switched gears before you could give too much thought to what you were missing. The only truly transcendent moment I can recall is his rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” because it was so wonderfully out of place, as if he had discovered a missing third counterpart to zig and zag.

Joe Shanahan, the founder and owner of the Metro, rated James Brown’s show that night as his third-favorite show in his first 20 years running the venue, behind only R.E.M (1982) and New Order (1983), but ahead of shows by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Prince, and many others. For me, seeing James Brown perform 36 years ago tonight was an essential moment, and not diminished by the fact that his finest years were clearly far behind him.

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