James Brown, Royal Albert Hall, London

Fish 'n' chips on the bridge

The loved child, they say, has many names. Make what you will of the fact that most of James Brown's epithets - The World's Greatest Entertainer, The Hardest-Working Man in Showbusiness, Soul Brother Number One, The Amazing Mister "Please Please Please", The Godfather of Soul - have been self-bestowed. The sheer number of bodies crammed into the Royal Albert Hall tells you that plenty of people still concur.

My ticket, the nice man tells me, has already been sold, because I had the temerity to find something better to do with my Sunday evening than catch the support act. By the time they've found me another seat, I've missed that peerless moment when an ecstatic "Owww!!!" gives way to a precursory funk build-up, before two staccato stabs of brass send the whole thing mental.

James Brown has, as he reminds us several times, been coming to the RAH for 30 years - since papa's bag really was brand new. It's not often in pop history that you can pinpoint exactly one artist, and even one song, which changed everything. If you're looking for the moment where the various strands of black music (blues, jazz, gospel, soul) suddenly ignited into funk, you can't go far wrong if you pick James Brown, and specifically, "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag". Lean, stripped down, brutally propulsive, it was aimed at nothing other than the hips and the feet: truly a revolutionary record.

Brown is legendary for the fascistic drilling of his band, but my side-on perch means I'm privileged to see what he does when his back's to the crowd. In reality, judging only by visual evidence, he seems to rule not with the threat of the boot, but with big pearly grins, wide eyes and enthusiastic finger-points. His band, in their navy suits, gold epaulettes and drill, resemble the orchestra from The Love Boat, or perhaps Glenn Ponder's Lazarus (Brown himself, with his weird wiggy straightened hair and navy suit, is the world's funkiest bellhop.) They certainly aren't the Famous Flames or the legendary JBs.

But the bandmaster himself marshalls an apparently motley crew into a faultless funk machine, and leads by example, frequently scuttling stage-left to personally provide some organ accompaniment. For a man who claims to be 59 years old - all biographical material makes him at least a decade older - Brown is in enviable shape. When he speaks - whipping up extra applause by joking "Y'all people need some more fish and chips, heh heh... I've had mine already." - you suspect that those pearly teeth might just be false. When he drops the big crowdpleaser, "I Got You (I Feel Good)", he bottles out of the big "I feeeeeel". But when he gets on the good foot and does that knee-trembler dance, he can still bring the house down like he did in '73.

Many favourites are rattled through in medley form, inexplicably incorporating other people's hits ("Soul Man", "I Can't Turn You Loose"); instead, it might have been nice to hear "Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud", which bequeathed to the language the slogan, "We'd rather die on our feet than keep livin' on our knees". Personally, I would have sold my pre-worn liver for "The Big Payback", purely to hear the immortal couplet, "Don't do me no damn favour/ I don't know karate... but I know ker-ayzeh!" Despite promising to "funk us up good", there's a lull caused by a surfeit of jazz/ blues numbers and a pointless guest spot by a Janis Joplin impersonator, before "Soul Power" brings the Hall back to its feet. However, it's ironically a slow number - the oddly touching misogynist torch song, "It's A Man's Man's Man's World" - which utterly slays the place.

He ends, naturally, with "Sex Machine". As the band chop through one of the most famous riffs ever written and guest Carleen Anderson adds some stupefying screeches, it's party central. For a person so famed for laying down the law, James Brown sure spends a lot of time asking for the green light. Permission to take it to the bridge is requested. And unanimously granted.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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