at the Henry Fonda Theater, January 16
As the opening strains of “Between the Sheets” brought the crowd to its feet, Ron Isley strolled onstage with a grin — flaunting shades and a cane, squeezed into a belly-emphasizing shirt, too-tight velvet jacket and ill-fitting pants — and exhorted the crowd, “I love it when you call me Big Poppa!” Isley reveled in the Biggie connection (Smalls sampled “Between the Sheets” for his own “Big Poppa”), but ignored Gwen Stefani’s more recent sampling of “Sheets” like a note from the IRS. (Stefani jacked “Sheets” for her hit “Luxurious.”) The concert, a benefit for the youth organization A Place Called Home, was also meant to premiere songs from the forthcoming new Isley Brothers CD, but no new material was played. (Likewise, no mention was made of the fact that this could be one of Ron Isley’s last shows: He’s facing a possible 26-year sentence for tax fraud.) Ron and guitarist brother Ernie, along with their band and a quartet of beautiful but badly used dancers (think Solid Gold) rocked a nonstop greatest-hits revue that spanned from the start of their career (1959’s “Shout”) through Ron’s horrid but ghetto-iconic stint as Mr. Bigg in R. Kelly’s overheated world. It was mind-boggling to be reminded not only of the brilliance of the Isley catalog, but also of their aesthetic and musical reinventions: “It’s Your Thing,” “For the Love of You,” “Voyage to Atlantis,” “Who’s That Lady,” “Twist and Shout,” “Footsteps in the Dark,” “Summer Breeze,” “Fight the Power” and, of course, Ron’s solo hit, “Down Low.”
The night never really took off, though, despite the dazzling virtuosity of Ernie, and the palpable desire of the crowd to set it off. Ron’s weak breath control and inability to hit notes killed momentum, despite the shrieks of recognition that went up at the start of every song. The highlight was a show-stealing performance of Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “Sweet Thing” by a striking, bald woman from the audience who took the mic during an impromptu American Idol bit and, with diva attitude and showmanship, brought the house down. (Another contestant was dissed by Ron when, after her wailing, he remarked, “You tried, honey.”)
Still, it was testimony to the Isley pull that the crowd ranged from middle-aged and elderly women bumping and grinding (with one going slightly psycho and trying to climb onstage) to a multiracial quartet of teen boys in the front row who ecstatically jumped to their feet at the first chords of “Down Low” and proceeded to act out ?every lyric.