I’ll never forget where I was when I heard that Sharon Jones died. I was at a concert at which she had been scheduled to appear.
Jones was the biggest name booked to perform at the James Brown tribute concert that took place Friday night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. But show organizer and host Christian McBride announced, at the start of the first set, that she was in the hospital and unable to perform. At then, at the start of the second set, he announced that she had died. Loud gasps were heard all around the theater.
McBride said that the second set would celebrate Jones, as well as Brown — both, coincidentally, natives of the Augusta, Ga., area.
“Life should be celebrated, not mourned,” McBride said, later adding: “I think of what James Brown might have said, had he been here: ‘Son, ain’t got no time to do no crying! You got a show to do.’ … The show goes on. You do all that sad stuff after the show.”
The other artists on the bill shared memories about Jones as well. Lee Fields, for instance, talked about meeting her when she sang backing vocals for him, and how he had been confident that she would recover from the pancreatic cancer she had been fighting. Nona Hendryx, who replaced Jones on the bill, said she believes in reincarnation, and also believes that Jones has already “entered into another soul.”
Bettye LaVette, while introducing “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” — which Jones had originally been scheduled to sing at this show — said she had sent Jones a message that morning, saying she would try to sing it in her spirit.
The show — one of the main concerts of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, which continues through Sunday — featured three former Brown backing musicians (trombonist Fred Wesley, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and drummer Robert “Mousey” Thompson) in addition to his longtime emcee, Danny “Capeman” Ray. Wesley, Ellis and Thompson played with the house band, which was anchored by McBride’s nimble, funky bass.
Ryan Shaw joined Fields, LaVette and Hendryx as guest vocalists. Hendryx (a member of Labelle) and LaVette knew Brown personally, having opened shows for him, and so were able to talk about him a little, too.
The singers were not only ready to sing and yelp in Brown’s style, but, in the the Brown tradition, were determined to put on a show.
The highlight of the first set was Hendryx’s “There Was a Time,” in which she executed a variety of classic dance moves (the jerk, the camel walk and so on), capped, to the audience’s delight, by “the James Brown.” Fields punctuated his songs with spins, and LaVette and Hendryx sang with show-stopping emotion on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Prisoner of Love,” respectively.
Shaw started the show’s last number, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” on his own, but Fields, LaVette and Hendryx soon joined him, and everyone danced and, just like McBride said at the start of the set, celebrated.
Hendryx hinted, at the end of the evening, that the show — which actually followed a similar show McBride put together in Hollywood, Calif., in 2014 — could turn into a tour. Now that would be a cause for celebration as well.