Whether 67 Or 72, James Brown's Still Got It

Godfather of Soul skipped the splits but otherwise got down and funky at Wednesday performance billed as his birthday show.

OAKLAND, Calif. — It was billed as James Brown's 67th birthday party, even though his birthday was May 3 — one week before the Wednesday night show.

Some record books, though, say he was born in 1928 — which would make him the hardest working 72-year-old in show business.

But whatever chronological milestone the Godfather of Soul attained this month, he proved he can still manage some lightning-quick shimmies and shakes during a show at the Paramount Theatre that also featured an opening set by pioneering funk band Tower of Power, playing on their home turf.

In a red suit with sequined lapels, Brown strutted plenty in his black cowboy boots, even though he didn't treat the audience to any of his famous splits.

But the enthusiastic, decked-out crowd that quickly sold out the downtown art-deco palace didn't seem to mind.

After a 20-minute set by Brown's Soul Generals band — two trap drummers, a percussionist, four backing singers (The Bittersweets), two keyboard players, a three-piece horn section, three guitarists and two bassists — resplendent in matching bright-red formal suits and white shirts, the main man hit the stage.

Funky Rhythm, No Blues

He opened with "Get Up Offa That Thing," which featured a lengthy sax solo by Jeff Watson, who, besides playing, had to follow Brown around as the mischievous frontman dragged Watson's mic stand back and forth across the stage.

"What Time It Is?," "The Payback" and "Papa Don't Take No Mess" followed in quick succession, keeping the crowd on its feet a good 20 minutes into the set.

Things slowed with "I Found Someone to Love Me" and "Try Me" (RealAudio excerpt), one of his earliest hits. "Every Beat of My Heart" featured the Bittersweets, and led Brown into "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" (RealAudio excerpt).

Legend has it that members of Brown's band are subject to fines for missing notes or cues. If so, it would seem the lesson's been learned, as the band was unfailingly tight. "I Lost Somebody" featured a blazing guitar solo, which earned the Godfather's approval and the comment that, given the musician's red hair, he could only have so much soul.

At no point in the show did Brown allude to the arson fire that swept through his Augusta, Ga., office building last month, destroying an estimated tens of thousands of dollars' worth of memorabilia, including costumes and gold records.

Isaac Hayes' Greatest Achievement

The focus instead stayed funky, especially on "Git Funky" and "I Got You, I Feel Good" (RealAudio excerpt). After those two songs, Brown stopped the action to present one of the two frenetic dancers who'd intermittently hit the stage. By way of introduction, he had the band play a few bars of the Isaac Hayes classic "Theme From 'Shaft.' "

"We're gonna give the stage to this young lady and she's gonna blow your minds," Brown said. The Godfather couldn't seem to resist at least a hint of lasciviousness as he went on to tout the woman's many capabilities, earning a quick look of reproach from her in the process.

"Isaac did a lot of good things," Brown concluded, "but nothing better than this."

With that he turned the mic over to the dancer, who turned out to be Hayes' daughter, singer Hannah Hayes, who was wearing an electric-blue halter top and matching hot pants and who towered over the diminutive Brown. But she didn't disappoint the crowd, turning in a smoky "Misty Blue."

As Brown again took charge, he began "Please Please Please," another of his earliest hits. Included here was a shtick he's been doing at least since the mid-'60s: He falls to one knee, then a handler dressed in long white tails drapes a green sequined cape over his shoulders and attempts to lead him offstage. Brown takes a few steps, then shuns the cape and returns to center stage.

But following a lengthy "Sex Machine" (RealAudio excerpt), the Godfather called it a night.

Still A Young Band

Highlights of Tower of Power's opening set included a recently revived version of the ballad "Sparkling in the Sand" (RealAudio excerpt), off the Oakland band's 1968 debut, East Bay Grease.

Lead singer Brent Carter followed that by saying how opening for Brown was enough to make any musician's career complete. Then he launched into the band's tribute to him, "I Still Be Digging James Brown": "The more things change/ The more they stay the same/ It may be a different age/ But we're still on the same page/ One thing I found/ I still be digging on James Brown!"

The band concluded the set with its biggest hit, "What Is Hip?" (RealAudio excerpt) The crowd, some of whom already had been dancing in the aisles, rose to its feet and roared. On any other night, at any other show, there would have to be an encore. But not this night, with Soul Brother #1 waiting in the wings.