Album Review #40: Live at the Apollo by James Brown (1963)

Live at the Apollo, James Brown

I’m back, everyone! Terribly sorry about the unannounced hiatus. I fully intend on making my posts much more frequent than they have been.

James Brown was known as “the hardest working man in show buisness.” After all, he played a gig almost every single night, (and sometimes even multiple times in a single day,) and the concept of a “break” was pretty much completely alien to him. So for a single 30-minute concert, performed at the Apollo Theater in 1962, to consistently rise above all other sets of the man’s entire career and frequently place on lists of “greatest live albums ever”, it has to be something truly special. Well, worry not, because this album more than lives up to the endless hype. You know you’ve got a hell of an album on your hands when the only complaint you can think of regarding it is that it’s just too short. At just over 32 minutes, it almost always leaves the listener unsatisfied and wanting more. But hey, an album sure can do worse when its only drawback is that there just isn’t enough of it.

Side A

The album starts with a passionate intro from Fats Gonder. He lists off all the songs on the setlist, each one punctuated by a burst of brass that increases in pitch each successive time, creating an awesome sense of buildup and anticipation. After his opening, the band launches into a cool yet crazy-energetic instrumental, with the guitar alternating with the brass section with a great call-and-response style. After a minute of this, the man himself, James Brown, steps up to the microphone and screams out the opening lines to the first song, “I’ll Go Crazy,” with an astonishing raw power only he could pull off. The guitar strums out the opening chords, before the song finally kicks off with hypnotic arpeggios and excellent singing from both Brown and his underrated backup singers. This is probably the single catchiest song on the record, with flawless hooks, melodies, and instrumentals that all work together perfectly to create what is possibly the perfect R&B song. They then seamlessly transition into the next track, “Try Me,” which is much more subdued and calm, but still just as enjoyable as the first. Putting these two tracks right next to each other does a great job of emphasizing Brown’s emotional range: he can sing and scream the loud-and-exciting songs and soulful-and-tender songs with equal effortless proficiency. From this track until the end of the side, there is a brief ten-second bridge between each song performed by the brass section that really serves to maintain the momentum between each song. Because of this, the whole side feels like a sort of epic suite, with even the quiet and calm tracks acquiring a feeling of tension and anticipation. After “Try Me” comes “Think,” a short and rambunctious song with a chaotic rhythm and a jaw-dropping sense of power throughout. Brown’s vocals on this track are barely-coherent and really come off as more of a background to the instruments—unusual for this album, as his singing is usually so demanding of attention that he becomes the centerpiece of any one song—but honestly, in this instance, it really works. His vocals here perfectly complement the unhinged nature of the track. Next comes another slow ballad, “I Don’t Mind,” opening with a very understated, barely audible organ in the background that gives the song a strange, calming-yet-tense vibe that really makes the track stand out among the rest. As always, Brown’s vocals make the song, with an impressive level of sheer intensity delivered in a quiet tone. Even when he brings out the trademark scream, it’s quiet and incredibly controlled. This whole track is, simply put, a masterclass in restraint.

James Brown clickamericana[dot]com

James Brown delivering a riveting vocal performance. Image source: clickamericana.com

Side B

The album’s second half kicks off with the showstopper, the ten-minute soulful blues jam, “Lost Someone.” This is the reason this album is still remembered all these years later, and is frankly worth the price of admission alone. It’s incredible length (which, by the way, is a third of the entire album’s running time) doesn’t hold it down at all: in fact I would argue that it wouldn’t even work with a shorter time frame. It’s an excellent example of repetition in music done right. The band plays, for the most part, the same bassline and trumpet part repeatedly, but with minute variations that keep it engaging, and, of course, James Brown’s once again jaw-dropping vocal performance. His voice really does carry this entire album, and on this track especially he imbues every line with passion. His singing is captivating, emotional, and engaging to no end. The audience simply can’t contain their excitement here, screaming and shouting with him along the way, with James even calling for some screams himself in a brilliant moment of call-and-response. After this ten-minute behemoth, the band transitions into a rapidly-changing medley of several songs, all packed into six minutes of time. Where “Lost Someone” was expansive and took it’s time, this medley moves from melody to melody faster than the listener can even keep track of it. In perfect honesty, I don’t like this track nearly as much as I do the rest of the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still great. It’s just that all of the musical ideas aren’t given nearly enough time to develop, and while I recognize that it’s a medley of preexisting songs, I just think it would’ve done better if it had given the song snippets a little more room to breathe. The vocals and band are just as captivating as they are on the rest of the album, but this track still stands out as an “alright” point in an album of incredibles. The album ends on a high note with the classic “Night Train,” with its instantly-recognizable brass part and a truly exhilarating bass and rhythm.

And just like that, the album’s over. Like I said before, the only bad thing I can say about this record is that there just isn’t enough of it. It’s one of the greatest live recordings ever put to record, and if you’ve never listened to this non-stop thrill ride before, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Let me know what you thought of the album, I’d love to hear your opinions!

Favorite Tracks: “Lost Someone,” “I’ll Go Crazy,” “I Don’t Mind,” “Think”

9/10 (by the way, starting with this review, I’ve decided to start giving albums numerical ratings out of ten! Let me know what you think about this, I’d really love to know.)

Next Up: Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and João Gilberto (1963)

 

Album Review #32: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Green Onions, Booker T and the M G s

If Jimmy Smith broke new ground by opening the gate for the organ to enter the world of mainstream music, Booker T. and The M.G.s were the ones to truly refine it to its peak potential as an artform. Whereas Jimmy Smith used it as a jazz instrument, providing mostly cool backing to the other performers, The M.G.s used it as a Rock and Roll instrument, bringing it to the forefront of the band and unleashing its full potential as an artistic tool. Coupling the organ with an electric guitar, bass, and drums, they created an iconic, instantly recognizable sound that both ties it to its time period and never grows old.

Although the M.G.s changed their lineup quite frequently, it is their original lineup, featured here, that is most well-known. Maintained from their debut until three years later in 1965, it featured Booker T. Jones on the Hammond organ, Steve Cropper on guitar, Lewie Steinberg on bass, and Al Jackson Jr. on drums. While it’s hard to deny that Booker T.’s organ is the highlight of the ensemble, credit must be given to Steve Cropper’s guitar. He has a distinct playing style that compliments the organ quite well. The band’s overall style is unmistakably theirs, and still holds up very well today. It sounds somewhat like a strange marriage of classic rock and roll and baseball stadium music, and it is absolutely a good thing. Even the covers on this record sound more like M.G.s songs than their original artist’s. You could listen to a song of their’s that you’ve never even heard before, and still easily identify it as their song, and that really is the mark of a band who’s perfected their craft.

Booker T. and The M.G.s rollingstonedotcom

From left to right: Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson Jr., Lewie Steinberg.

Image source: rollingstone.com

When it comes to tracks, boy does this album pack a punch. Right off the bat there’s the title track, their most successful single and one of the most recognizable songs of the first half of the Sixties. The organ on this track is borderline perfect, providing without a doubt the most memorable melody of the entire record. Cropper’s guitar plays with short, chopped-up notes that go excellently with the organ line underneath it. The whole track really is just a joy to listen to, and is absolutely deserving of its enduring popularity. Up next is “Rinky Dink,” a nice, catchy tune with a great guitar hook, and after that is a superb cover of the Ray Charles staple “I Got a Woman” that more than does the original justice. However, with the exception of the final track “Comin’ Home Baby,” Side B kind of just falls flat, at least compared to Side A. It isn’t bad, but just isn’t really as interesting as the first side. “Comin’ Home Baby” is incredible however, with a quiet, subtle mood and strangely sad organ part that wraps up the album quite nicely.

So even if the second side wasn’t the greatest, this album is more than worth a listen. Even if you’ve never heard of the band before, “Green Onions” and to an extent the songs that follow it are so ingrained in American culture that you’ve more than likely heard it before without even knowing it. And their success is deserving: they created their own style and refined it to perfection, further solidifying the organ as an acceptable instrument in popular music. Even regardless of its importance, it’s just a fun listen. I would highly recommend this one.

Favorite Tracks: “Green Onions,” Rinky Dink,” “I Got a Woman,” “Comin’ Home Baby”

Next Up: Jazz Samba by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962)

Album Review #29: Muddy Waters at Newport by Muddy Waters (1960)

Live at Newport, Muddy Waters.jpg

Muddy Waters was among the first to bring the electric guitar into the blues, and this live recording is one of the best showcases of his talent. It’s the second live album recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival I’ve reviewed for this list, the first being Duke Ellington’s in 1956, but this album is of course wildly different. Featuring boundless energy, powerful rhythms, and soulful vocal performances, this is a defining album for the genre, introducing blues to a much wider audience than it previously had.

I’m going to be honest: the harmonica makes this album. Something about its mournful, harmonious voice just propels these already good songs into the realm of pure excellence. Without James Cotton’s harmonica playing, this album wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as it is. Its fluttering, unsteady and shimmering tone injects passion into the slow songs and vigor into the fast songs. But it’s not the only virtue this album has. Francis Clay’s drumming makes the uptempo tracks exhilarating, but it’s the slow tracks where the percussion really shines. The drums give slower songs a feeling of sheer power and strength not seen anywhere else in music at the time. Each and every beat is like a punch to the chest, and I mean that in the best possible way. Couple that with Otis Spann’s piano and Muddy Water’s guitar and vocals, and you’ve got a recipe for some of the best classic blues ever put to record.

Muddy Waters telegraph.co.uk

Muddy with his legendary Fender Telecaster. Image source: telegraph.co.uk

When it comes to which specific track is the best, that’s a tough choice, but I’d have to say “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” takes the cake. With a slower tempo, stomping beat, and an absolutely iconic hook, it’s probably the strongest and most memorable track on the entire record. The harmonica, piano, guitar, and bass just seem to kind of meld together into a single sound, and the result is just pure blues bliss. Some other great tracks include the opener “I’ve Got My Brand on You”, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” and “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” which is so good that the audience makes them play it twice. But, second to “Hoochie Coochie Man,” the highlight of the record has to be the haunting closer “Goodbye Newport Blues.” It’s by far the gloomiest track the album has to offer, and it ends the concert on a high, if depressing, note.

Muddy Waters at Newport is simply put one of the greatest blues albums of the decade, if not of all time. It’s got melodies and rhythms that’ll stick in your head for days, and is possibly the best showcase of Muddy Water’s musical genius of his entire catalog. If you’re not familiar with the blues, this is an incredible place to start, and if you’re a fan of the blues, you’ve probably already heard it, but just listen to it anyway.

Favorite Tracks: “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Goodbye Newport Blues,” “I’ve Got My Brand on You”

Next Up: Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans Trio (1961)