SEATTLE It was a reunion of sorts, if not the one many had hoped for, when James Brown, his former sideman Maceo Parker and Brown's ex-backing band the J.B.'s performed Sunday at the Key Arena to close out the Experience Music Project's opening weekend.
The evening started out promisingly enough, as the J.B.'s took the stage with Fred Wesley on trombone, Bootsy Collins on bass, Bobby Byrd on keyboards and Peewee Ellis on saxophone.
Although the reunited bandmembers who hadn't played together in 22 years sounded a little stiff at the opening, they got into a groove when Collins, in a shiny gold suit and his customary star-rimmed glasses, stepped out in front of the stage and began singing, "We're gonna have a funky good time!" The rest of the band filed in behind him, and soon the entire arena was swinging their hips and chanting along to Collins' mantra.
After a short break, Parker and his 10-piece band took the stage for the second set of the evening. "Hey Maceo! ... Yo, Maceo!," his bandmates called out to him, mimicking Brown's customary salutation. As Parker, in a crisp silver suit, slipped onstage with saxophone in hand, the crowd cheered for the funky horn player whose early career included stints with the J.B.'s and Parliament/Funkadelic.
"This is like a reunion tonight!" Parker shouted to the audience during a break. "Many of us here tonight got our start from James Brown. We love you, James." And with that, the band jumped right into "Rabbits in the Pea Patch" (RealAudio excerpt), a traditional blues song that Parker includes on his current album, Dial: M-A-C-E-O. The performance showcased the signature rapport the saxophonist established with the brass-heavy rhythm section.
But the highlight of Parker's set came halfway through, when the Godfather of Soul himself appeared onstage and jumped onto the Hammond B-3 organ, letting his fingers fly across the ivories to the crowd's delight. When he was done, Parker took the spotlight for a soulful saxophone solo on Paul McCartney's "My Love." That was quickly followed by the introduction of Parker's hip-hopper son, Corey Parker, who picked up the tempo with a few numbers that showcased his rhyming skills. The crossover appeal of Maceo's son got some of the younger fans on their feet.
After another short break, Brown and company took the stage around 10:15 p.m. Brown scooted out to the front of the stage, grabbed the microphone, dipped it to the floor on his knees, bounced right up and shouted, "Unhhh!" The 5,000-plus crowd pushed their way closer to the stage for more of the legendary singer's grunts.
Brown's band, decked out entirely in matching red-and-white tuxedos, hung in the back. The Bitter Sweets, Brown's female backup singers, smoothed out many of Brown's rough edges with their angelic harmonies. Brown's raspy voice, muddied further by the sound system, was hardly a letdown for the thousands of fans shaking to the rhythm of such classic Brown hits as "Get Up Offa That Thing" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Livin' in America" (RealAudio excerpt). When the latter came to a head, a blizzard of blue foil confetti dropped from the ceiling.
But if anyone thought this was going to be a full-on reunion, they were mistaken. Though Brown did bring Ellis and Wesley back onstage for an occasional solo, the power-jam that many hoped for never emerged.
"I came here to see Bootsy and all the old brothers," disappointed Seattle resident Deandra Washington said toward the end of the show. "We only got to see the J.B.'s for a few minutes; they should be up there playin' with James!"