SAN FRANCISCO -- True, James Brown, a.k.a. Soul Brother Number One, among other monikers, has made the news as often for his run-ins with the law as anything else recently.
But fans in San Francisco who made it out to his show Saturday know that the Godfather of Soul is still earning his props.
"It was like lightning struck San Francisco," said Cathy Brazil of Pescadero, Calif., who drove an hour and a half with a friend to make the show. "I'll never be the same."
Brown's funk-and-soul revue drew some 3,000 fans to the stately, marble-columned Masonic Temple amid Nob Hill's swank hotels Saturday night. The show brought together sharply dressed old-school soul-seekers, yuppies, Gen-Xers, Deadheads and teens in Led Zeppelin T-shirts.
No matter what their stylistic preference, all present seemed to know that even if the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, who's now either 65 or 70, depending on whom you believe, were to cough cobwebs instead of singing, his band would still be the tightest funk outfit on the planet.
Decked out in long, fiery-red formal suits, the Soul Generals (three guitars, four- and six-string basses, keyboards, baritone and tenor saxes, two trumpets, trombone, two drummers and a percussionist) took the stage behind the four, blue-sequined female singers of Bittersweet.
After 20 minutes of their warm-up set, on came Brown, beaming with funky force in his hot-magenta suit.
They ripped through "Get Up Offa That Thing" and "Cold Sweat," with Brown busting tight dance moves, such as the "Camel Walk" (an obvious precursor to the moon walk), and doing splits, all the while cueing the band with hand signals.
Though he avoided some of the highest notes he might have nailed in the old days, the Godfather of Soul still sang with the power and intensity that made him the world's number-one soul singer.
Calling out "Where is M.C. Hammer?" he signaled for the hooky guitar-riff of "I Can't Stand Myself (When You Touch Me)" as, joined by two dancers in blue hot-pants, he high-stepped into the dance moves of "Too Legit," strutting with the energy of a much younger man.
For "Living in America," the dancers sported stars-and-stripes-patterned mini-dresses, and master of ceremonies Danny Ray wore white tails as he performed the ritual toss of a silver-sequined cloak over the shoulders of the Godfather who, of course, threw it off. The dancers reappeared wrapped in Old Glory and waved it with sexy fervor.
"How many people heard of Isaac Hayes?" Brown asked.
As the guitarists stroked the wah-wah-heavy intro to "Shaft," the crowd cheered wildly, expecting the man behind the voice of the cartoon-character Chef in "South Park."
"Well, we don't have brother Isaac Hayes," Brown teased, "but we have his daughter, Hannah Hayes!"
One of the dancers then took the mic to belt out an a cappella chorus of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" (made famous by Whitney Houston).
The Godfather then introduced the Bittersweets, who brought the show back to Earth for a gospel medley that segued into "Try Me."
"You wanna see me do something?" Brown taunted. "Hit me!"
The band slammed into the hot funk of "There Was a Time" and again riffed quickly through bits of old hits and instrumental jams from Brown's vast musical canon, often using one tune as an intro to another.
The Soul Generals are so tight they seem almost to be an extension of Brown's body, seamlessly running through the complex changes with only his subtle visual cues to lead them. "If you miss a cue, you get a $20 fine," saxophonist Jeff Watkins said after the show, noting the difference between missing a note and not paying attention. The boss flashes his hand four times, adding up the fine -- five, 10, 15, 20.
Vamping into "Georgia on my Mind," the Godfather dueted with Bittersweet Cynthia Davis then hopped it up again for "I Got the Feeling." Brown tested the Generals with a fast cue -- which they hit -- then gave extended solos to guitarists Keith Jenkins and Ron Laster, who invoked B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, respectively.
After "You Gotta Live for Yourself" and a medley including "The Payback" and "Prisoner of Love," Brown gave the spotlight to singer Tammy Raye for a song, then shouted "Soul!" and sang "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World."
The energy rose to new heights during "Soul Power" and "Soul Man," filling the aisles. Brown and singer Roosevelt Johnson danced the bicycle as the band broke into "Hot Pants" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" (RealAudio excerpt). The dancers returned for the grand finale in red-satin hot-pants that matched the band's suits.
With the crowd eating out of his hand, Brown sang "Please, Please, Please," threw off successive green and red cloaks and jumped into the crowd to boogie with a new lady friend -- to the chagrin of his bodyguards, who pulled him back onstage.
The Godfather was having a funky good time. He teased the crowd with "Sex Machine," turned the mic over to rapper Gary Marks and sat at the organ, trading breaks with Watkins' alto sax.
Marks worked the crowd into an irresistible, hand-waving, fist-pumping frenzy, and everyone got down to where it even smelled funky by the time the Hardest Working Man in Show Business ended his day.
"I've been seeing James Brown since 1966 in Sacramento," boomer Vaughn Storr of Oakland, Calif., said. "I've hardly missed a show of his. He's still the Godfather."
San Francisco's Maria Stokes, perhaps recalling Brown's role as a clergyman in the "Blues Brothers" movie, summed it up this way: "I think it's the closest I'll ever get to church."