The Great (Live) Albums: James Brown’s ‘Live at the Apollo’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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Live at the Apollo, James Brown (1963, King/Universal)

Since I’ve started writing this very popular and critically acclaimed column for The Great Albums, I’ve begun to develop a nagging sense that maybe the “rock concert” as we know is played out. Now, this might sound like a weird thing to say. We all like concerts, and live shows remain by far the most robust sector of the music industry. Just ask the life-sustaining 20-oz. bottle of Arrowhead I’m still paying off from Coachella 2006.

But I’m not talking about commerce. I’m talking about the performing arts. And unless we’re some kind of theatrical prog outfit or jam band, the live concert experience has—since the late 1960s—settled into a set of ossified rituals as calcified and predictable as the Stations of the Cross.

This (weirdly) was what was at the top of my mind this week listening to James Brown’s iconic 1963 album Live at the Apollo, which is as oddly paced as any live album I’ve reviewed thus far. The Apple Music version of the record totals just 31 minutes across 11 tracks, although three of these are listed just as “Instrumental Bridge” and last less than 15 seconds each. Additionally, the album very quickly dispenses with four early James Brown favorites—“I’ll Go Crazy,” “Try Me,” “Think,” and “I Don’t Mind”—in a rapid succession of hummingbird-quick two-minute versions. I felt like I blinked and suddenly we were eight tracks deep with only three left to go. It was disorienting, like looking at a list of credit card transactions the week after a bachelor party.

It’s dizzying, but also instructive as to Brown’s origins as a performer on the Chitlin’ Circuit throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Alongside Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, Live at the Apollo serves as an illuminating historical document: a record of a time when the rhythms and rituals of pop performance hadn’t yet solidified into their more recognizable classic rock form.

The herky-jerky of it all in a weird way reminded me of filmmaker Roman Polanski’s off-kilter framing in Rosemary’s Baby—particularly the scene of Ruth Gordon’s nefarious bedroom phone call in which the actress is awkwardly positioned halfway obscured by a doorframe. The effect is that the viewer is compelled to crane his or her neck for a better vantage point into the room; a clever bit of metaphysical trickery on Polanski’s part. And I felt very much the same way here with the awkward lurch of the album’s first half. It’s twitchy pacing made me prick up my ears and lean in a little bit closer, to listen harder.

 James Brown performing live in 1963

James Brown performing live in 1963

Apollo, of course, is widely considered one of the best—if not the best—live album ever made, one whose content has been covered extensively in other venues. And truthfully a lot of what I personally might be able to say about Apollo could be copied-and-pasted directly from my Live at the Harlem Square Club review. Specifically: how this is seductive, gutbucket soul music delivered by an impressively ragged-voiced pop auteur who at times seems almost lost in a gospel reverie as he stokes the ecstatic passions of a highly vocal audience.

But Apollo—recorded at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater on October 24, 1962—arguably captures a tighter performance than the Cooke record does, even if (to my ears) the recording quality is slightly worse. Brown’s vocals seem a bit too dry and high in the mix, and his mic shorts out more than once. Brown, of course, would become famous for his exacting precision as a bandleader, known to fine his musicians for miscues and bum notes. But in 1963 James Brown wasn’t “James Brown” yet. And while the performers here—Brown, his backing singers “The Famous Flames,” plus a 12-piece band—are polished, they’re also loose.

The album switches gears entirely in its second half with a laconic 10-minute version of the 1961 hit “Lost Someone,” Brown’s improvised vocal excretions underpinned by a sleepy two-part horn refrain that keeps things on the rails. Then comes another sudden lurch, as Brown unleashes an over-caffeinated mega-medley that dispenses with eight marquee hits in a Minor Threat-quick six minutes: “Please, Please, Please,” “You’ve Got the Power,” “I Found Someone,” “Why Do You Do Me,” “I Want You So Bad,” “I Love You, Yes I Do,” “Strange Things Happen,” and “Bewildered.” The audience cheers so hard throughout, it’s like all of Harlem is on the perpetual cusp of spontaneous combustion.

But Brown doesn’t have time to linger, because it’s on to the show’s climax: an amped-up, full-length “Night Train”—at the time, Brown’s most recent charting single. As the Hardest Working Man in Show Business motors through the tune it’s hard not to envision several failed attempts to affix a cape around the sweat-drenched man’s shoulders, garments repeatedly flung to the side as the singer conjures yet one more round of soulful bellowing.

As with all legendary musicians, our image of James Brown is has been fixed into a semi-cartoonish demon-id outline. The reality of Brown as an artist goes much deeper, of course, particularly with regard to how Brown existed as an artist and performer earlier in his career. The main thing, I think, is flexibility. In those early days, Brown’s voice was more agile and his band sloppier—in a good way. In any event, it seems like it was a hell of a night to be at the Apollo.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)