James Brown, St Luke's church, London

Still getting on up at 70
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The Independent Culture

It's hardly a surprise to find James Brown playing in a church - after all, he was once the First Minister of the New Super Super Heavy Funk (or some such), the singer most responsible for putting the church into pop and creating soul music in the first place. Fitting, then, that he should be chosen to inaugurate this refurbished church in Old Street as a performance venue, tonight's show being filmed for transmission next month by the BBC.

Not that you get to meet the Godfather of Soul straight away. Oh no. There's a ceremonial aspect to these things that was laid down long ago in a distant land of milk and honey, a procedure which dictates that first we have to meet the band and choir, in the form of James' latest band, the Soul Generals, and his trio of lady singers, the Bitter Sweets.

Dressed in garish pillar-box red jackets, the umpteen-strong Soul Generals look like a crowd of Butlin's Redcoats engaged in some frantic game of stage sardines; the Bitter Sweets, thankfully, are more fetchingly outfitted in little black numbers. To set the colour-scheme off, there's also an MC in a white tuxedo, who, after the opening instrumental overture, warms up the audience for Brother James's arrival by having the Bitter Sweets call out a selection of his hits, each illustrated by the briefest of musical motifs from the Soul Generals. James Brown, you soon realise, has had a lot of hits.

Finally, after the audience has been cajoled to call out for him, the Funky President arrives to the strains of "Let's Get Funky". But not for long. Little more than one refrain and one twirl later, he disappears again, leaving the alto saxophonist to take a solo, before returning to take the applause. This is a recurrent theme of the evening, with few of the Soul Generals losing out on their solo spot. And since the band features two drummers, two bassists, a percussionist, three guitarists and a three-piece horn section, that's an awful lot of solos. Along with the Bitter Sweets, the two scantily-clad go-go dancers who arrive to help their boss "Get Up Offa That Thing", and yet another aide-de-camp whose function - apart from doing the "get on up" response in "Sex Machine" - appears to be to persuade his boss to return to the microphone, there are eventually around 20 bodies crammed on stage, all moving in precision-tooled unison.

It's understandable, I suppose. At 70, Brown is not quite the "hardest-working man in showbiz" that he once was, though he is undoubtedly the most energetic pensioner you'll encounter. "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" is terrific, the band negotiating the abrupt, punchy riff with ease, and the fringed epaulettes of Brown's midnight-blue jacket bobbing about as he essays a few dance moves. At one point, he even does his trademark splits. But only once. He leaves most of that sort of thing to the go-go dancers.

Too soon, however, Brown announces that "we're gonna stretch out now", with an instrumental, "Heavy Juice", that's long enough to include solos from trumpet, sax, both drummers and percussionist.

Some of the audience take the opportunity to refresh their glasses at the bar downstairs, returning only to find that Brown has brought on yet another female singer, one Tammy Rae, whose three-song slate of ballads further deflates the head of steam built up earlier.

He takes the mike again for a melodramatic "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World", but, enlarged with a spoken section and yet more instrumental solos, it soon loses shape. As with many of tonight's numbers, it's asked to accommodate too much: for all the band's taut riffing, the impression is too often one of exhausted slackness, like overstretched elastic. A few songs later, as the screams of "Please Please Please" subside, the cape makes its first appearance, draped around Brown's shoulders by the MC as he ushers him off stage. This, of course, is but the start of the most venerable ritual in R&B, with Brown returning several times over the next half-hour, adding "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose", "I Feel Good" and "Sex Machine" before, two hours after the show started, he's finally gone for good.

And while one can't help feeling that at times he demonstrates the virtues of delegation a little too indulgently, it's hard to think of another bus-pass holder who could remain quite this industrious for quite this long.

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