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James Brown was the single most vital and influential American artist of the second half of the 20th century. OK, that's impossible to prove, but this grandiose, insupportable claim sounds slightly less ludicrous than it might with any other name inserted, and really Brown's larger-than-life persona demands that kind of hyperbole. In fact, referring to him simply as "Brown" sounds wishy-washy--the man has accumulated so many sobriquets because a mere legal name sounds pitifully insufficient, and descriptions of his career require plenty of capital letters and exclamation points and grandiose (but not always insupportable) claims. One made often by the faithful is that he's "still got it" live. If "it" means the vocal and physical agility that first made him a star, well, someone's fibbing a little--he'd lost a good deal of his upper range by the 70s (though that hardly prevented him from making some of his strongest music), and even if he has the energy of a man half his age, there are limits to the stamina of a 35-year-old too. But if "it" means a crack band whose members negotiate hairpin changes as though their paychecks depend on it, an inexhaustible back catalog, and a superhuman determination to defy all external limitations (now channeled into confounding the constraints of age), well, damn straight. Polydor has recently remastered two excellent compilations: In the Jungle Groove, a collection of tracks from 1969 to '71, and Motherlode, which covers '69 to '73. Both were originally released in the late 80s, when hip-hop was stripping his groove down to its basic components; the world needed a reminder that "Funky Drummer" could stretch itself to 9 minutes and 15 seconds without overstaying its welcome. Today Brown's catalog is in slightly less disrepair, and these comps have long since been replaced as starter kits by the awesome four-disc box Star Time (Polydor, 1991). Of course folks who think they can be satisfied with a single disc of James Brown have their priorities so out of whack there's no point in talking sense to 'em; then again any such innocent who unsuspectingly winds up immersed in the new reissues might be forgiven for thinking he or she was listening to the single most vital and influential American artist of the second half of the 20th century or something. Friday, August 15, 9 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Crump.

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