One of the most exhilarating experiences of my concert-going life was a free open-air show in Montreal in mid-June (Grand Prix weekend, for the initiated) in, like, I don’t know, the mid-90s. The stage was in front of the Place des Arts “stairs”, corner of Ste. Catherine, and at the height of it all, there were, easily, 65,000 people packed into one block, never mind the energy in the city. It was freakin’ mind-blowing.
There I was, front row/center stage thanks to my funkadelically psychotic — yet oh so soulful — girlfriend, who knew what was at stake right away and insisted she camp in the baking hot sun for the bloody sound checks and jugglers (or whatever…) at 3:30 in the afternoon. I remember showing up around 5:30, mildly indulging her.
As the setting sun finally gave way to the cooling night, the crowd grew…The first few acts we’re pretty random and by the time James Brown got on stage the anticipation was electric. People were chanting “free James Brown” — mostly in reference to the fact that the concert was free…A few, however, we’re soaked in the iconic symbolism. That and the comedy of Eddie Murphy.
Then it started…Song after song imprinted in my mind (and body and soul) since I was little. Here was a legend, the Godfather of Soul, in the fucking flesh…The dancing, the sweat, the sharp horn lines, the whole package. He played about a dozen songs…Classics, blended together in a beautiful flow, the beat always going. Then the big finish, the tired walk-off, the cape, the return to the stage. More horns, more rhythm, more soul.
By that point I was dazed and delirious — the heat of the late afternoon, the herb, the bustle of the crowd all combined to mesmerize me. People were starting to fade as the crush of dancing bodies moved forward and suddenly I was, like, practically the only white guy around. I thought of the fights, brawls and near race-riots that used to be a feature at his concerts, but that was in places like Detriot, in the U.S. This was James Brown in Montreal, mecca of multiculturalism, and it was just a revelry of mad music, bodacious sweating dancers, backbreaking beats and, of course, funk.
I thought about the symbolism of everything that happened that night — and what James Brown meant to me — for a long, long time. It was life-altering — imprinted into my psychic pop-culture paradigm like few other things. So it is that this Christmas — already somewhat somber and isolating for me — took on a slightly darker cast when I heard the news that James Brown is dead.
And yet, through his music, and the impact he’s had on millions (if not billions) of people in his more than half-century as the consummate entertainer, he will remain ever vibrant. His is a legacy that will, if there is any meaningful purpose in this universe, continue to resonate across the modern musical landscape.
Thus, you see, James Brown is still very much alive.