JAMES BROWN: 'Mr Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown' (Universal DVD/Blu-Ray)

Friday, 27 November 2015 11:27 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

JB_Rise_DVDAs rags to riches tales go, James Brown's was more extraordinary than most. Delivered as a stillborn baby, he was miraculously revived only to be later abandoned by his parents. After that, he was raised by an aunt in a whorehouse but became a juvenile delinquent who was sent to a correctional centre after committing a robbery at fifteen. But music proved to be Brown's salvation and together with Bobby Byrd, he became part of a group called The Flames and his innate, preternatural musical talent combined with a remorseless sense of drive and unflagging determination resulted in him becoming the greatest and most influential R&B performer of all time. Award-winning documentary-maker Alex Gibney's new feature-length biopic - co-produced by Mick Jagger no less - looks at Brown's phenomenal rise to fame, combining archive footage of Brown's live performances with interviews that he did on US TV. Providing asides are 'talking head' contributions from former band members (Pee Wee Ellis, Jab'o Starks, Melvin and Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Martha High, Bootsy Collins), erstwhile employees (Danny Ray and Alan Leeds) along with contemporary musicians and self-confessed Brown aficionados (Christian McBride, the Roots' Ahmir 'QuestLove' Thomspon, and Public Enemy's front man, Chuck D) plus the Reverend Al Sharpton, who proffers sage observations on 'Mr Dynamite's' personality. Even Mick Jagger contributes, setting the record straight on what happened at the T.A.M.I Show in 1964 when Brown was supposed to have blown the Rolling Stones off stage (Jagger claims that when the Stones 'followed' Brown, it was several hours later and in front of a different audience).

Thankfully, Gibney's riveting film, even though it's been endorsed by the Brown estate, isn't a butt-licking exercise in hagiography, but offers a candid and insightful portrait of the Godfather of Soul, whose inherent flaws were part of what made him such a fascinating character. Despite his self-made success, Brown didn't share his spoils with anyone and never let his guard down, even to those supposedly closest to him. He's depicted as a moody, egocentric loner and workaholic who trusted no one: a demanding tyrant and harsh disciplinarian to his band who also possessed a violent dark side (especially towards women). Despite this and his unconscionable ruthlessness, Brown is a figure whose success and rise to power - in the late '60s he was arguably the most powerful black man in the world - warrants a grudging admiration and respect. But he overstepped the mark in the eyes of many African-Americans by supporting Nixon in the 1973 presidential election and that's what initiated the start of his decline. Gibney's film, though, doesn't focus on Brown's fall from grace (or his later rebirth) - it's more a 'warts and all' celebration of his maverick genius, tracing the evolution of his music against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in the late '60s and early '70s. It also evaluates Brown's musical legacy and demonstrates how his kinetic funk grooves and mesmerizing rhythm tracks influenced nascent hop-hop and became its core DNA. As music documentaries go, this expertly made film is undoubtedly one of the best - pure dynamite, in fact.

(CW) 4/5

Last Updated on Friday, 27 November 2015 16:42


MAZE: Silky Soul/Back To Basics (Robinsongs)

Thursday, 26 November 2015 16:31 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

mazeFrankie Beverly's Maze have long been real favourites with the soul cognoscenti. Even casual fans will be aware of their exquisite 'Joy And Pain' track – still popular in the nation's dance emporia! Most record retailers (on and off line) will have any number of greatest hits/best of packages which will allow you acquaintance with this superb outfit. But to really get to grips with the subtleties of Maze music you really do need specific albums and here reissue label Robinsongs pair the band's last two proper albums.... 1989's 'Silky Soul' and 'Back To Basics' from '93.

Maze's pedigree, of course, goes back to the early 60s when young and hopeful Philadelphia singer Frankie Beverly formed a band called The Butlers. In 1969 the Butlers became Raw Soul and moved to the West Coast to try their luck. There they were spotted by no less than Marvin Gaye who got them a deal with Capitol Records and had them open his live shows for him but only after he'd suggested a name change to Maze.

At Capitol Frankie and Maze perfected a smooth soul style that ran contrary to the then popular disco and funk that was dominating back music. After 8 albums at Capitol (seven Golds, by the way), Maze switched to Warners and the first fruit was the still-lovely 'Silky Soul' album. The album title is a perfect summation of the Maze sound....silky smooth with a real soulful depth. The lead single 'Can't Get Over You' was an R&B chart topper, deservedly so: but the album's real gem is the title tune. 'Silky Soul' is a warm homage to Marvin Gaye – lyrically and sonically. Beverly and Gaye enjoyed a close relationship (some commentators even suggest that the two "shared" Gaye's second wife, Jan. It is detailed that Gaye paid for Frankie and Jan to holiday in the Caribbean together!). Whatever, Beverly revered Gaye as his mentor and you'll hear no finer Marvin tribute than 'Silky Soul'. Another album highlight is 'Mandela'. Written when the statesman was sill in gaol, the potent song helped raise awareness of his plight.

The second CD in this pack offers 'Back To Basics', the band's final Warners album. Sonically, the nine tracker was similar in feel to 'Silky Soul' with the exception, maybe, being the choppy, synth-led instrumental 'Twilight' which always crops up on those 'best of' sets. Highlights abound – notably 'Love Is', a cut that has everything that makes Maze music so special. But dip in anywhere and you'll enjoy something really special, "silky soul", if you would.

With concise sleeve notes from our very own Charles Waring this twofer makes an excellent introduction to Maze and their music.

(BB) 4/5

Last Updated on Thursday, 26 November 2015 16:38


KIRK FRANKLIN; Losing My Religion (RCA)

Tuesday, 24 November 2015 15:13 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

Kirk-Franklin-2015In a lengthy career, controversy has never been too far away from gospel star Kirk Franklin and this new album, his 11th studio set and first release since 2011, has done little to calm the troubled waters. For starters, the title, 'Losing My Religion', is bound to set tongues wagging and get fingers pointing and indeed in the spoken word piece that opens the album Kirk seems to rail against organized religion; to support what many non-believers subscribe to... that religion divides and causes conflict; and to wonder why, if there is a loving God, why is the world plagued with so many serious problems, disasters and tragedies. But listen longer to the track 'Losing My Religion' (and yes, Kirk does reference the REM song) and you'll discover that the sentiments are not anti-Christian at all. In essence what he seems to be saying is that too many Christians have concentrated too long on ritual and practice rather than honouring God and living his message. Further he suggests that it's the religious structures and traditions created by humans that distract and distort from the simple Christian message; that if we escape from accepted, human-codified religious thinking, then we can enjoy a better, clearer and more direct relationship with God. We can speak directly to Him without the evolved trappings while He is always prepared to speak directly to us on that special one-to-one basis. The album's second track 'Miracles' outlines how God explained just that to Kirk. By speaking with God, he says, we can witness miracles every day.

'1-2-3 Victory' is just as complex. The lesson here is that God, through Christ's death and resurrection has won us our eternal victory; it's up to us to accept it. And so it goes... each song with a complicated lesson and far from losing his religion, Mr. Franklin is enriching his spiritual experiences via newer, deeper, more intimate channels. And so the album's message unfolds and with Gospel in general and with Kirk Franklin in particular, the message most definitely IS in the music

But what is the music like, 'cos after all, any message is more impactful if it's easily accessible and "attractive" while plenty of secular soul collectors go to Gospel albums for great melodies, stirring rhythms and sweet harmonies? There's plenty of all three on 'Losing My Religion' though the general soundscape is "typically Kirk Franklin". That's too say most of the songs feature Kirk testifying over contemporary R&B beats, supported by a female chorus... and it's some chorus he's recruited here. The album features some big Gospel names, amongst them Tasha Page-Lockhart , Zacardi Cortez, Kim Burrell, Lalah Hathaway, Sarah Reeves, Tasha Cobbs, and Tamela Mann. Mss Burrell and Hathaway are particularly enticing on 'When' – the pick of the album's slower movements, while the catchiest "up" tune is 'Wanna Be Happy' – no wonder Franklin and his team chose it as the lead single. Elsewhere, the most dramatic moment comes on 'Pray For Me'. This begins starkly with just Kirk and piano accompaniment, eventually building into a choral version of the Lord's Prayer. In the song Kirk Franklin realizes he's a flawed personality. He wants God to accept his flaws in the same way as we all must accept the flaws and shortcomings in those around us.

Love and compassion is the ultimate message in 'Losing My Religion'. Franklin says: "God is able to separate what you've done from who you are. It's that God sees us as children, and a lot of times we take our mistakes or failures or our sins, and we use it as a blanket and we wrap ourselves in it. God is able to separate us from that, to love us, while still addressing those areas we need to change. But we have a hard time doing that for ourselves."

KIRK FRANKLIN 'Losing My Religion' is out now

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 November 2015 15:21


DARREN BARRETT; Trumpet Vibes (db Studios)

Sunday, 22 November 2015 19:21 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

darren_barrett_trumpet_vibes_cover_art_20151013142544Darren Barrett is a Canadian jazz trumpeter: 'Trumpet Vibes' is his seventh album as leader, and the set's sleeve sets the tone for what's in the album's grooves. The cover colour scheme is green, yellow and black – the colours of Jamaica, his parents homeland and throughout the LP's 8 tracks you'll hear plenty of laidback reggae rhythms and gentle ska-tinged grooves, most apparent on the cover of David Gates' 'Everything I Own'. Here Barrett uses Ken Boothe's version as his template rather than the Gates' original, while extra tonal textures come via Simon Mouiller's crystalline vibraphone. A version of Stevie's 'My Cherie Amour' is one of the album's other big covers. Again Barrett imposes reggae rhythms on the familiar tune while, in keeping with the album's title, there's space too for Mouillier's vibes. 'To Sir With Love' is 'Trumpet And Vibes' third cover tune. Always a great, hummable tune, once again Barrett plays it over the rhythms of the Caribbean. The Jamaican influence is less obvious on the fourth included cover... Donald Byrd's 'Fly Little Bird'. Byrd was one of Barrett's early mentors and the tune's inclusion is a heartfelt homage to the trumpet legend. More vibes, naturally, this time courtesy of guest player Warren Wolf.

The album's four other cuts are Barrett originals of which 'The Club Up The Street' is the most interesting. It's a busy bustling jazz workout that really does conjures up the atmosphere of the streets and the feel of the classic jazz club. Wolf is the featured vibraphonist once again.

Learn more about this album @

(BB) 3/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 22 November 2015 19:26



Sunday, 22 November 2015 15:43 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

Staple-Singers-A-Family-Journey-1024x1024With Christmas looming, most of the big labels are busy reissuing classic albums and putting out tasty box set retrospectives on their big names. Universal's Concord imprint now joins the fray with a wonderful 4 CD box set on the first family of Gospel – the Staple Singers.

This 'Faith And Grace' album – named for the set's big bonus item, a 7" vinyl pressing of the Staples' very first record, 1953's 'Faith and Grace' – is subtitled 'A family journey' and that's exactly what the 80 tracks represent; the evolution of band and a unique sound, like nothing else in gospel, soul or any other genre for that matter.

The first CD in the set features the band's early output for labels like Savoy and Vee Jay. The music is raw and passionate and you can hear the family searching to find their signature sound – the melding of Pops' tenor and young Mavis' thundering soul underpinned by Pops' finger picked electric guitar, awash with echo. That sound is almost there on the tough 'Each Day' and the more familiar 'This May Be The Last Time' –the song that inspired the Stones' 'The Last Time'. The included track here, by the way, is a rare alternate take.

CD 2 continues with the band's Vee Jay output before including the cream of their Riverside recordings. These include a version of Dylan's 'Blowing In The Wind', indicative of where the Riverside execs were trying to pitch the band... hitching them to the "authentic folk" boom sweeping the US intelligentsia in the mid sixties. (Soul anoraks would, I'm sure, like to know that that particular track also features Phil Upchurch and Johnny Pate). There's more Dylan on CD 3 with recordings taken from the band's tenures at Riverside, Vanguard, D Town and then Epic. Of note is their Epic cover of Stephen Stills' 'For What It's Worth'. Recorded in 1967, again it shows label execs trying to find a niche for the Staples... further illustrated by a version of 'Crying In The Chapel' credited to "Mavis Staples with the Staple Singers".

The last three tracks on CD 3 are Stax recordings and include the break through 'Long Walk To DC'. At last, its seems execs and producers (like Steve Cropper) knew what to do with the Staple Singers and, more importantly, how to make their very special sound commercial. CD 4 offers all the Stax biggies and their lovely Curtom recorded take on 'Let's Do It Again' and the Band's live version of 'The Weight' on which the Staples guested.

As a bonus you can enjoy the demo of 'Respect Yourself', but the box's big bonus is that 7" single that we mentioned up top. The disc features the earliest known recording of the family and it's the first time the tracks ('Faith And Grace' and 'These Are They') have been available in any format since the initial self-released issue way, way back in 1953. The two songs were originally released on either side of a 78 and were made in Pops Staples' Chicago basement and only 500 copies were ever pressed up! The sleeve notes (which include input from Mavis) explain all and, with the box retailing at just over £40, add real value to a collection that would make a great Christmas pressie for any proper soul fan.

(BB) 5/5

Last Updated on Sunday, 22 November 2015 15:51


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