#25: James Brown, "Live at the Apollo" (1963)

25 Live at the Apollo.jpg

I’m going to be straight with you.

I don’t really like live music. Like at all. Before you raise your festival bracelet-festooned fist to shake at me and talk about the Grateful Dead at Cornell in 1977 in detail, hear me out.

I wanted to start by preparing a list of several of my worst experiences with live music.

When I was 19, I paid like $150 to go to Bonnaroo. After waiting for over an hour to get a spot to see Sigur Ros perform at night, it started pouring seconds after they walk on stage. During a humid summer in Tennessee, clothes do not dry. I also bought fake mushrooms from a guy in a Scooby Doo shirt while I was there.

I’ve been punched at a hardcore show.

For my mom’s birthday, I got us tickets to see Elvis Costello at Ravina, outside of Chicago. They have relatively cheap lawn seats, and encourage people to bring food for picnics. Great. The only problem is, we sat what was probably close to a mile away from Elvis, and he’s a short guy anyway. What’s the point of going to see a musician if you can’t even see them?

At a different hardcore show, I bit off a sizable piece of tongue after somebody with a wallet chain knocked me down.

One time a girl dumped me for a musician. We saw him perform live together. They are now married and have a child.

*

I mean, I understand loving concerts in theory: you get a chance to see your favorite musicians perform in real time, and up close. It can also be great to experience unique versions of the songs you know and love. That’s wonderful. If you’re really lucky, John Mayer might even sign your forehead.

But truthfully, the benefits of live music, to me, rarely ever overtake or even offset the pain of standing in the middle of a man-sweat sandwich while military-grade infrasound literally rattles your brain.

More than anything, it’s an issue of practicality for me. I get annoyed by a lot of things, and very easily. Anyone eating, anyone yelling, anyone being publicly happier than I am capable of being. You get it. Concert venues have the remarkable ability to combine all of these things into a space that is usually really hot, really loud, and dark as shit.

But a lot of people I know and like, most in fact, really like live music, and it makes me wonder if I experience music as a phenomena differently, plain and simple. My two favorite kinds of music are drill rap and ‘90s emo (should I even exist?). For me, the experience of liking either of these genres is having an intense response, either high or low, to the music at hand. I’m great about being vulnerable behind a keyboard, but when a patchouli-doused lunatic is watching you while you’re trying to enter that state at a concert?

No, thank you.

*

But ok. After spending a robust 500 words explaining to you, dear reader, why I do not like live music, please allow me to walk all of that back like an idiot. That’s because James Brown’s iconic album Live at the Apollo changes things for me.

Truthfully, I don’t really like James Brown’s studio music very much. When I agreed to write about this album, I wanted the challenge of trying to embrace something I knew, probably, that I wouldn’t like. I liked the idea of a challenge, and I thought it could have been productive. And, for the first time in a long, long time, I was right about something.

Throughout the entire album, there’s an ineffable dynamism present: these songs swell and shift; they always feel like they’re on the verge of collapsing or falling out of time, and then, somehow, everything falls perfectly back into sync. In a song like “I Don’t Mind,” a wandering bassline dovetails with a tinny, almost invisible guitar lead that seems to blink in and out of time, and just when you start questioning what’s going on, everything meets in the middle.

And then in a song like “I’ll Go Crazy,” you can almost feel the way his voice resonates in key, a small but achingly beautiful detail that even studio equipment in the early 1960s typically effaced. I haven’t found video from this show, but I can see James Brown during this song, with his twitchy, violent, somebody-get-me-an-exorcist energy, and there’s nothing like it.

On this album, in these moments, the music feels truly organic, you can feel it shuddering. You can feel it breathe.

The undisputed best moment of the album, and the thing that really converted me, comes on its third track, “Try Me.” The song itself is a sweet, slow, unadorned ballad to a loved one. Driven by a simple bassline played on a stand-up, Brown gets out two words, “Try me,” in the song’s opening seconds before the crowd realizes which song he is playing and explodes.

I’ve heard enthusiastic crowds before, but this isn’t the same. The screams that erupt from the concertgoers aren’t normal, they don’t even sound healthy. They’re high-pitched and frenetic, and the first time you hear them, it’s honestly unnerving. It sounds like these people are fearing for their lives; joy so intense it’s turned into terror.

And for a few seconds everything else is drowned out. Unmitigated chaos. After things settle and the song goes on, it’s still broken by intermittent cries: at an instrumental break just after the one minute mark, more wailing rises up from the crowd again.

“Try Me” is actually one of the handful of James Brown songs I truly enjoy outside of this record. The bizarre layers of audience interference present on the rendition of it on Live at the Apollo make it rendingly beautiful. There’s something impossible about it, a song so tender absolutely electrified by thousands of unbridled screams, like watching a handful of feathers catch fire and brilliantly burn.

And it’s this weird, shrieking, human presence I think that really let me enter the album, that made rethink, at least in some ways, my stance on what live music can do.

James Brown has been dead for more than ten years. In fact, I bet a lot of his fans who were packed into the Apollo that night—ones much younger than him at the time, ones who stepped over fallen October leaves that fall night in Harlem on their way to the stage—are dead too. And no, I’m not about to drop a platitude about capturing a moment in time. Because this wasn’t just a moment.

The way these people screamed. They ripped themselves wide open. They didn’t care what anyone thought, and that vulnerability, captured on analog and pressed into a record like a glittering, exploded fossil, is something beautiful.

It’s something, at least, that I could never get right.

—Jack McLaughlin