Still Black, Still Proud
June 14, 2008
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This musical tribute to the late, great, Godfather of Soul, James Brown starred two of the stellar horn players from his long grooving band, Pee Wee Ellis on saxophone and Fred Wesley on trombone. Along with performers and musicians from the USA and UK, such as rapper Ty and singer Wunmi, the show also featured two singers from the African firmament - rising star, Simphiwe Dana from South Africa, and established singer/musician Cheikh Lo, from Senegal, along with drummer Tony Allen, who played in the band of late political activist and performer Feli Kuti and Malian blues guitarist, Vieux Farka Toure, son of the late consummate guitarist Ali Farka Toure.
British born, Nigerian descended performer Wunmi, literally kicked off the show, wildly gyrating onstage, accompanied by a smiling, deceptively light handed African conga player and another drummer, playing on a traditional drum-kit, along with musicians manning guitar and bass, demonstrating that she could, indeed, do a split and manage to get upright again in her black, silver strewn outfit, and high-heeled boots, though she seemed to have difficulty getting down when it came to her vocals. However, the fact that the show got off to a rather confusing, albeit upbeat start did not detract from the multitude of joyous jams scattered throughout its course.
Ellis and Wesley were both on great form, musical and otherwise throughout the night, though the programme itself was a mixed bag of Brown hits and songs which had been performed by members of his band without him. It was rather surprising that no image(s) of the iconic performer was in evidence either onstage or outside of the Barbican Hall, particularly as most of that day had been promoted as a tribute to Brown’s memory. As it was, the linked documentary film, James Brown: Soul Survivor and concert were a welcome pairing, though the latter, despite its many high points, seemed a bit disorganised in places. During the playing of Brown’s early seminal classic, ‘Cold Sweat,’ for example, which is often cited as funk’s defining moment, it was rather puzzling that an unknown young sax player was permitted to shamelessly hog the spotlight for a lengthily solo, much to the chagrin of one of the sax playing musicians alongside of Ellis, though Ellis himself seemed to take it in his stride. However, as Ellis is credited with inventing the seminal riff in that song, it would have been great to hear him take the lead on that number, in particular. Still as Ellis originally joined James Brown’s band back in 1965, it’s certain he’s played that song more times than he could count over the years.
British rapper Ty’s talk-singing, rat-a-tat treatment of another Brown classic, ‘Make it Funky’ drew pained looks from Wesley in particular, who may have thought, as I did at times, that the singer was taking too many liberties with the song. However, Ty was marginally more successful in inciting the largely stony crowd than others before him had been. Wunmi had drawn ‘ooohs and aaahs’ with her over the top dancing, but her ability to activate the crowd had quickly fallen flat along with her vocals. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled when she attacked the vocals on Brown’s political ground-breaker, ‘Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud), though her shouting delivery better served that strident number than it had her first. However, Ty, urging the crowd to ‘be black’ and sing the lines, along with him, ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud, seemed to cause more discomfort than spontaneously soulful moments, as most people, white ones that is, remained silent. My understanding of Ty’s request was that Brown may have wanted all of his fans, whatever their races to see themselves as one, though never having seen Brown perform that number live, despite the fact that I’d seen him perform many times over the years, I couldn’t be sure he would have seen it in that light.
A black American singer whose name was not listed in the programme gamely tackled the vocals on some of Brown’s signature songs, among them: ‘I Got the Feelin’, and made a pretty impressive job of it, complete with promising screams, from what I could hear, though it was unfortunate that his mike wasn’t turned up enough to allow his efforts to be heard more clearly, as his turned down vocals may have given Brown novices cause to wonder what all the fuss was about. African singer Lo fared far better with his tribute numbers, ‘There Was a Time’ and ‘This is a Man’s World,’ as his mike was properly set up to allow his excellent vocals to be appreciated, and Ellis, with whom Lo has recorded a well-regarded album looked very pleased with his efforts. Lo seemed a worthy candidate for stardom himself, in his colourful patchwork suit, especially given the distinctiveness of his vocal style, and fine musicianship.
However, for me, one of the revelations of the evening was Simphiwe Dana, whose lovely voice hovered somewhere between the vocal caresses of young Sarah Vaughn and Aretha Franklin like soulfulness, though the uniqueness of her talent almost seemed to rule out the possibility of finding adequate words to describe it. Her version of one of Brown’s earliest hits, ‘Try Me,’ handily convinced me, and hopefully, many others in the crowd that she is a true star, as she made the song, one of Brown’s seminal classic, her very own. It was apparent from the beaming faces of Wesley and Ellis that they were similarly thrilled by Dana’s moving performance.
Smokin’ horn playing, wailing guitars, (cliché apt) inventive drumming, and keyboard playing along with superb vocal styling from Ms. Dana, Mr. Lo and the unnamed American singer made for a fantastic mix. All in all then, Still Black, Still Proud was a fine show, with some singularly high moments. True, it could have been even better if those who didn’t have a firm enough grasp/appreciation of Brown’s musical impact to be able to interpret that to the crowd through their performances, be they done in their own way or not, hadn’t attempted to. Some performance footage or images of Brown as backdrop also might have also served to heighten the show’s wavering sense of purpose.
Still, the fact that such a show was staged is a tribute to James Brown’s legacy in its own right and the opportunity to witness some of the members of his long serving, hard-working band performing alongside of such great African musicians established this concert as a memorable one, indeed. Having said that, however, by the show’s conclusion, it was obvious from the baffled, world-weary looks on the faces of Ellis and Wesley that they are definitely not musicians who are accustomed to playing before a mostly, seated crowd.
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