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Dance to the Music! JB and Moby

Before we get too far into 2007, I wanted to give a little virtual ink to a couple more 2006 releases that got me groovin’.

James Brown Live At Montreux 1981 (Eagle Eye Media). I think you’d be hard-pressed to find many folks who think that 1981 was near the prime of James Brown’s career, but as this set from the Montreux Jazz Festival shows, even at the age of 47 he could still “get on the good foot” and get down. Owww! Huuuh! As with all the Montreux videos I’ve seen, the sound and visuals are superb—the band mix is just about perfect, with the punchy four-man horn section (The JBs) emitting peppery blasts above the great rhythm section and guitarist Jimmy Nolan, who fires off a couple of hot leads over the course of the set. The horn players are tightly choreographed, spinning their trumpets in unison, dipping left, then right, and three female backup singers, all clad in white, offer an always-moving counterpoint on the other side of the stage.

But, of course, what “star time” is all about is JB himself, and the fabled “hardest working man in show business” definitely emits a lot of heat. In fact, he comes onstage already in a hot sweat, his face glistening from the first downbeat (maybe he was doing jumping jacks backstage?), and he continues to perspire more, his face getting slicker and wetter, his great mop of hair more disheveled as the set progresses. You’ve seen those Ripley photos from the ’30s of the Wild Man of Borneo? Well, that’s JB by about the third song, ’cept that his orange polyester jumpsuit and jacket are pretty natty threads. The first three songs are anchored around killer funk grooves, and JB grunts and yowls through all of them, his legs quivering, directing the band and backup singers with one arm, flinging the mic stand back and forth with the other. The man could move, and even though the 1981 James Brown has a slight paunch, he still can pull off most of his famous maneuvers—hop/shuffling across the stage effortlessly on one foot, quick-spinning, dropping to his knees or into splits, commanding the stage as few can do. There’s no mistaking that he was the progenitor of everyone from Michael Jackson to Prince to Mick Jagger. And it’s so easy to get lost in the blur of his motion and the deep, percussive grooves his band lays down, that you forget what a great singer he was. On his late ’50s ballad “Try Me,” you can hear a little Otis Redding and Sam Cooke in his delivery, but it’s still unmistakably James Brown. He also puts in a powerhouse vocal performance on his bluesy hit, “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” though it devolves into a rather tedious tribute to a number of deceased artists, from the aforementioned Redding and Cooke, to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix (alas, Nolan’s axe cuts out right as he’s channeling Jimi), and John Lennon, who had been murdered just the previous December.

A couple of tunes in the middle drag a bit, and as a rule I’m not a fan of medleys: it’s a crime to abbreviate “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You”! But by the closing “Jam” and “Sex Machine,” JB (now in a black bejeweled jumpsuit that Elvis would have envied) and Company seem like they’re in some great funk trance again, practically bursting from the small stage, the choreography threatening to become anarchy—JB letting go with his last bursts of energy like some tribal shaman finishing up a spiritual incantation with a poof of magic powder and a flash of light in the fire. It casts a truly hypnotic spell, and it’s difficult not get swept up in Brown’s enthusiasm as he shakes hands with and high-fives dozens of folks bopping by the stage. It’s only been 70 minutes, but he’s poured it all out, and I’m betting that everyone in that concert hall in Switzerland went home that night feeling exhausted but undeniably enriched by James Brown’s fabulous soul explosion.

An accompanying ten-song CD is a bit too pithy: just 37 minutes, though it does have many of the highlights (and none of the lowlights) of the set.

Moby: Hotel Tour 2005 (Mute). Although Moby’s 2005 album, Hotel, didn’t match the sales of his 1999 breakthrough Play (or its follow-up, 18), it was still a great disc, filled with some of Moby’s strongest and most original material, and the accompanying tour was dynamite, as this fabulous DVD shows. Fronting a small band—a four-piece, plus singer Laura Dawn—in a concert from Leuven, Belgium, Moby takes us through nearly the entire Hotel album, as well as many of his other “hits” (dance floor smashes and dreamy flights from Play and other albums) over the course of a very generous 24-song set, plus three bonus tracks elsewhere on the disc. This band can really kick it on the dance numbers, but also manages to capture the all-important ethereal side of Moby, too. In fact, the range of the group is quite astonishing, but then so are Moby’s diverse talents as an artist. Here, he does more with fewer players than he did on the also-excellent tours in support of Play and 18, and now that he is singing lead on more of his own tunes, he has grown into a confident and convincing front man—this doesn’t feel like “Moby-plus-samples” as it sometimes did in the past.

Moby’s range as a vocalist is somewhat limited (though personally I like his voice a lot, and at least he writes to his range), but he always has a great woman singer in his group, too, and Laura Dawn proves to be a great fit with him—she tackles the parts sung previously by other singers with soulful assurance, and on the Hotel material (she’s featured on the album, too), she captures such a wide range of emotions: sultry, wispy, joyous, vulnerable. A great harmony singer, she also handles leads like it’s her band…which I suppose it is during those numbers.

It’s amazing how seamlessly songs from the different eras of Moby’s career dovetail together—that’s the strength of his original vision and the skill of a very tight band. Different as they are, songs like “Natural Blues,” the Bowie-esque “Spiders,” the incendiary charge of “Bodyrock” and the blissfully beautiful “Dream of Me” all make sense being part of the same program, which runs the gamut from propulsive electronica to ambient instrumentals to pop-rock. The one glaring omission: “Southside.” Still, there are so many moments of sheer exhilaration on this disc, where the irresistible hooks practically force you to sing along, and the dazzling, kinetic light show display frames the action with an almost architectural brilliance; so much to see, so much to absorb.

Beyond the concert, so skillfully directed by George Scott, and featuring typically state-of-the-art sound (recorded by Will Shapland; mixed by John Pennington), the DVD also offers conceptual videos produced for five of the songs from Hotel (all imaginatively rendered, and in the case of “Beautiful” and “Dream of Me,” indescribably bizarre in an demented art school kind of way) and also some artsy offstage tour footage and a visit with Mr. Fish…don’t ask; funny and weird.

And, in case you think you still haven’t gotten your money’s worth (Ha! This DVD is a steal!), there’s also a 13-track remix CD, which deconstructs and reconstructs six tunes from Hotel, most in two or three versions. It’s some cool and occasionally strange stuff—and proof again that no matter how “pop” Moby may have gone on Hotel, he will still always return to his roots in dance music and remixes.