Who’s that man? Real dapper man. Refined man.
He’s Ron Isley, the voice of the Isley Brothers, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group that’s been making music for seven decades.
The Isleys – a multi-faceted R&B institution down to just brothers Ron, lead singer, and Ernie Isley, the guitarist – came to the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis on Saturday night. The near-capacity, mostly middle-aged crowd was stylin’ just like Ron Isley in his sharp blue suit, bow tie, aviator shades and gold-topped cane.
Isley, 74, proved to be a charismatic, animated and sexy entertainer, who often used female dancers in fancy outfits for eye candy. But he was less impressive as a vocalist, leaning on two female backup singers and the fans to carry lots of the vocals. Pulling the microphone away from his mouth, he bailed out on many of the high notes, though he hit a few sexy high coos to show that he’s still in the game.
Similarly, the Isleys offered abbreviated versions of a few of their biggest hits, including 1969’s “It’s Your Thing” and 1972’s “That Lady,” which lasted less than four minutes and most of it was devoted to Ernie’s sweet, soaring guitar.
Hence, the 95-minute performance was more nostalgic fun than musically satisfying (an inadequate sound system and dubious mix didn’t help).
Ron Isley, who used to share vocal chores with his late brother Kelly and retired brother Rudy and has enjoyed a modest solo career in this century, doesn’t have the enduring vocal chops of, say, Patti LaBelle, 71, who sparkled as a singer and entertainer a few weeks ago at the Minnesota State Fair.
Isley changed outfits only once, slipping into a black velvet jacket and midnight-blue fedora to do his Mr. Biggs bit. The two backup singers and three dancers changed outfits more often. The six-man band and Ernie Isley wore the same outfits all night – and their performances were as steady as their appearance.
During “Summer Breeze” and a couple other numbers, the rock-inclined Ernie, 63, was given room to stretch out on guitar. He had a stoic demeanor and effortless style as he fired off fast, soaring runs that evoked Carlos Santana, Prince and Jimi Hendrix, who played in the Isley Brothers before Ernie.
Ernie's inventiveness and Ron's vocal instincts reminded fans of the Isleys' interpretive prowess. Moreover, hearing "Twist and Shout" -- which the Isleys did before the Beatles -- reminded folks how influential the Isley Brothers have been.
Besides Ernie’s guitar work, the highlights included 30-something backup singer Kandy Johnson (aka Mrs. Ron Isley) bringing the house down with the gospel number “Jesus Loves Me” (which Ron introduced as a tribute to Whitney Houston, who was known for doing the song) and “Shout,” the Isleys’ first hit from 1959 that received an extended, almost revival vibe as it featured snippets of James Brown’s “Funky Good Time” and Sly Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher.”
It was a fitting finale for a fun evening. Then, as an encore, Ernie – who never showed any onstage camaraderie with his older brother -- offered a solo instrumental rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” Hendrix-style.