"What would James Brown do?"
Anyone who knows the groundbreaking soul singer's biography understands that's not a question that inoculates against trouble. But in certain circumstances, such as when America is paying witness to the Ferguson, Mo., racial strife unfolding via social media on a Wednesday night, it's an appropriate one to ask.
In the case of the Hollywood Bowl's often heavy night of soul power, "Get On Up: A James Brown Celebration," that question arose because of circumstances outside of anyone on the impressive roster's control. On an evening that witnessed urgent renditions of Brown classics from artists including Aloe Blacc, Angelique Kidjo, Bettye LaVette and D'Angelo backed by a 14-piece band that included seven former Brown sidemen, wondering on James Brown's likely response had nothing to do with his musical perfectionism or super-bad razzle-dazzle.
A night of music timed to connect his work to the recent biopic, "Get On Up," the event was designed to serve as a reminder of the enduring legacy of an American original through performances of some of his biggest hits. To that end it succeeded.
However, I started thinking about this when I realized that it would be tough to tear away from Twitter and the events unfolding just outside my beloved hometown of St. Louis to focus on "Get On Up." Thus, as Los Angeles singer Aloe Blacc was working through a version of "The Payback" filled with requisite grunts, sweat and blasts of brass, and bandleader Christian McBride was pushing forth a heavy bass groove, on my Twitter feed someone had posted this from a Ferguson resident:
"I'm not sure we can get back into #ferguson. I asked a cop about road access and had a Sniper rifle pointed at my chest...."
Perhaps the phone should have been dropped right then, but I take notes on it. So when Blacc, known for his hits "The Man" and "I Need a Dollar," embodied Brown's powerful message of vendetta and the song's co-writer, trombonist Fred Wesley, played along, the unfolding police action mixed with the music pumping from a tight band: "Revenge! I'm mad! The big payback!" The music suddenly became the soundtrack of horrifying news far away.
Originally a song about searing jealousy, the work assumed new meaning when surrounded by fresh context.
Another tweet, hard to ignore despite the energy onstage: "Phone dying, tweets will stop. Chants of 'Hands up, don't shoot' and 'what if this was your town' will continue tonight in Ferguson," posted Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery after being detained by Ferguson police.
Twitter next informed me that a St. Louis alderman got arrested for illegal assembly as mesmerizing Benin singer Angelique Kidjo harnessed the percussive punches of Brown's "Say It Loud!" Surrounding her were some of Brown's musical messengers: emcee Danny Ray, sax player Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, trombonist Wesley and percussionists John "Jab'o" Starks, George "Spike" Nealy, Robert "Mousey" Thompson and "Funky Drummer" originator Clyde Stubblefield.
What would James Brown do? Would he pause in the middle of the show to acknowledge the strife? Would he say that all these years later, his black power anthems and bold declarations had lost their ability to direct change? Would he tell us that these performers had not risen to the occasion by acknowledging the discord?
I'd like to think that, unlike the performers onstage, he'd have decried the police action and spoken of the continued relevance of protest music or at least offered a message of peace for Ferguson. That none was forthcoming perhaps mattered only to me and a few other people — as I said, maybe I should have stopped checking Twitter and focused everything on those songs (could I have missed a mention while checking Twitter?). Still, that felt like a missed opportunity to celebrate Brown's best side: his advocacy for black youth and message of peaceful change.
This was especially true considering the crowd, which while not packed contained a big population of African Americans.
The day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, as much of urban America was experiencing drama akin to that occurring in Ferguson, Brown played a historic concert in Boston that helped defuse racial tensions. He did so by inviting onto the stage Boston's white mayor, Kevin White, and assuring the crowd that he was a good man — "a swinging cat!"
As writer R.J. Smith recounted in his Brown biography, "The One: The Life and Music of James Brown," "Driving in the bus to the Garden, band member Fred Wesley said he was worried he might be shot en route or on stage. Some in the group were praying just to get through things; others were ready to run." Boston remained peaceful that night, and over the following years Brown issued some of his most political music.
Onstage, Kidjo told a story about James Brown's impact on her life as a girl an ocean away. "The first day my brother put James Brown on the turntable, I went flying from the kitchen going, 'What the hell is this one?!' And I said to myself, 'The language he's singing in, I want to learn that language.'"
"Say it loud," she sang at the Bowl, "I'm black and I'm proud!"
A tweet from @TefPoe: "This pastor was shot with a 60 cal rubber bullet but she's still here fighting the good fight and protecting others!"
Brown's was the language of music as power, and his former bandmates on hand manifested that most memorably during the final set by the great soul singer D'Angelo. Going deeper into the catalog first with solid, richly toned takes on "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing" and "Maybe the Last Time," the Atlanta singer teamed with the musicians to deliver heaviness and funk.
The evening concluded when D'Angelo delivered a version of "Soul Power," Brown's ode to musical fury. As all of the vocalists from throughout the evening arrived onstage, the night's organizer, McBride, drove the entire band with heavy bass and intense eyes. In its own way, this is still a strong message.
"Know we need it! Soul power!" the vocalists declared one by one. "You know we got it! Soul power!"