by Calvin Cox
The Isley Brothers | El DeBarge | After 7 Chaiftez Arena September 18, 2011
Things got off to a bit of a rocky start at this weekend's Superstars of Soul concert. Just prior to start time, lines for the box office practically stretched out of the doors, thanks mostly to a number of tickets being refunded. As it turned out, the reason for all the commotion was that Keith Sweat -- the second biggest draw on the bill -- had cancelled. Although he announced his withdrawal from the show several days ago, it didn't look as though word had reached his fans. No official statement was given regarding his absence.
The pain-in-the-ass ticket lines caused a few frustrated fans to miss out on the opening set, which was handled respectably by After 7. The Indianapolis-based trio, which currently includes Kevon and Jason Edmonds (both related to Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds), played roughly 40 minutes of its nostalgic new jack-era R&B hits. After more than twenty years, most of the group's hallmarks remain intact. The wailing vocals, the three-piece suits and snappy choreography were all present; all that was missing was the whacked-out '90s haircuts. After 7 gave a solid performance, with "Can't Stop," "Nights Like This" and "Ready or Not" among the crowd favorites.
After a five minute intermission, El DeBarge took the stage emphatically. For those who don't know, DeBarge gave a brilliant performance last October at the Fox Theatre. Two months later, El removed himself from Kem's Intimacy tour to enter rehab, following a reported drug-induced breakdown at an Interscope office. I bring this up only because in this context, his frenetic energy and mishandling of the microphone led me to wonder if drugs were still an issue. His set seemed to skip back and forth between songs a little, and at times it appeared that he couldn't decide whether to sit or stand. I'm not judging, I'm just saying...
In any event, it didn't take El long to get warmed up and get the ladies on their feet and screaming. He spent a lot more time on the keyboard this time around, and his demeanor was more playful and loose onstage. His younger brother Chico made a guest appearance for a couple of tracks, which went over well with the crowd. El's performance wasn't quite as tight as it was for last year's set, but it was still worth seeing if you're a fan. His falsetto is still superb, particularly on songs like "There'll Never Be" and "I Like It."
Soul legends (and St. Louisans) Ronald and Ernest Isley began their set around 9:30, joined by a full band and three lovely backup singers, one of whom was Ron's current wife Kandy. Now at age 70, Ron looked a little like the late Ray Charles wearing a suede suit jacket, black bowtie and enormous shades. When he was standing or walking he required the help of his cane, so he spent most of the night sitting down. Eleven years his junior, guitarist Ernie had quite a bit more energy and was dressed much younger in white jeans and a bright red head wrap.
The Isley Brothers are the only musical act to have hits in every decade since the 1950s. Rather than try to squeeze in shortened versions of more songs, they picked favorites and took their time with each one, with the exception of a three-song Mr. Big medley. Ron's voice has lost a little of its power over the years, but it's just as smooth and soothing as ever. Ernie's performance on the guitar was nothing short of incredible, and proved to be just as integral to the group's signature sound as Ron's singing. He showed off a little by played with his teeth during the extended guitar solo on the closer "For the Love of You," and handing out picks at the end of the show. Midway through their 90-minute set, rapper Yung Ro and President of the Board of Alderman Lewis Reed came onstage to present the duo with an unnamed award as well as their thanks for years of service in the music industry. The Brothers graciously accepted, and Ernie added, "You'll need more than one award. There's more than one Isley Brother; there's six of them."
Notes and setlists after the break. Personal Bias: I've admired the Isley's music for so long, I could probably listen to Ron read the phone book aloud.
Overheard: "Why do I smell chronic? It's the Isley Brothers, not Snoop Dogg!" from a middle-aged woman in front of the venue
El DeBarge Setlist: Stay with Me All This Love Love Me in a Special Way Time Will Reveal 'Iggin Me (Chico DeBarge) There'll Never Be I Call Your Name Second Chance I Like It Rhythm of the Night
Isley Brothers Setlist: Fight the Power That Lady Between the Sheets Footsteps in the Dark Don't Say Goodnight Groove with You Hello it's Me Choosey Lover It's Your Thing Harvest For the World Make Me Say it Again At Your Best Falling in Love with Jesus Shout Voyage to Atlantis Summer Breeze Down Low What Would You Do Contagious For the Love of You