This concert is of great significance for having occurred one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rather than cancel the show, as Boston Mayor Kevin White considered, Brown carried on and ensured its live television broadcast. The intent was to keep the people of Boston glued to their TVs rather than potentially participating in rioting in the streets. Boston was free of violence the night of the concert, reportedly the only major city in the country without major incident. Credit was given to James Brown and his band for delivering one of the most electrifyingly impassioned performances of their career.
The Boston Garden concert was covered in detail in the feature-length documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston. Considerable time was devoted to it in both the aforementioned recent Brown films. But the concert itself must be seen to be fully felt. This was James Brown at his peak and he and his band deliver a positively torrid performance. Even without the historical import, the chance to see a complete presentation of the entire James Brown Revue in action is worth the price of admission. But the impact of what America was experiencing at that point permeates the entire proceedings. The fact that Boston was calm and quiet while much of the country was experiencing great unrest is even reported mid-show. A lengthy opening speech by Brown has been restored, as well as a speech by Boston City Councilmember Tom Atkins.
As for what has been newly added to the setlist, we now have Brown’s opening, seated performance of “If I Ruled the World.” Most of the remaining added material features Bobby Byrd or Marva Whitney fronting the band, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s inessential. Bobby Byrd, aka “Mr. I Need Help,” aka “Soul Brother Number One-and-a-Half,” was a force to be reckoned with in his own right. Here he tears through “Soul Man,” “I’m in Love,” and “Mustang Sally.” Plus there’s a beautiful, raw soul duet in which Byrd is joined by Brown. Marva Whitney was, quite simply, one of the greatest voices in R&B, soul, and funk music history. Her 1969 album It’s My Thing, produced by James Brown, is one of the essential funk music records. Hearing her belt out a four-song set here, concluding with her smoking take on “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” is pure magnificence.
The bulk of James Brown’s set has been available before, but now is placed in proper context with the opening speeches and his other featured performers. By the time he explodes with “Get it Together,” featuring blistering tenor sax work by Maceo Parker and some too-funky-for-words baritone licks by St. Clair Pinckney, the concert has reached fever pitch. Brown keeps it there, even when violence threatens to break out onstage, for the remainder of the show.
This black-and-white video was taped with now-antiquated broadcast equipment, meaning that it looks and sounds primitive by today’s standards. That said, it’s entirely watchable and listenable. With such relatively little vintage James Brown concert material readily available, the newly extended edition of Live at the Boston Garden - April 5, 1968 is unmissable.