Tony Rich is two-faced. Soulful balladry is the hallmark of the Tony Rich Project on his two LaFace discs, each song meticulously produced and performed with an unrelenting attention to subtleties; in his showcase to launch the new disc “Birdseye,” it all went out the window in favor of early ’70s funk and the Tony Rich fun zone. Rich proves he can play both sides with aplomb — as much as he had to struggle with a less-than-enthusiastic industry crowd, he brought a gleeful playfulness to the proceedings that could make even his most ardent fans wonder if they were at the right show.
A full half-hour of funk passed before he dipped into “Silly Man,” an example of the gentleness seen as his forte. Taken from the new disc, “Silly Man” hews too close to the suppleness of his biggest hits — “Nobody Knows” and “Missin’ You” — and at times even sug-gests those songs were rewritten by Paul McCartney during his sappy phase in the ’80s. Coming off much stronger was the bass-heavy slow jam “Grass Is Green” from his debut album, “Words,” encapsulating his affinity for Gap Band funk and a sensuous stride.
Rich, who possesses a keen understanding of dynamics, kept his activity level on overdrive throughout the 75-minute show, bouncing between his two tiers of keyboards and the center microphone — the antithesis of his recorded self, which, at times, outdoes Babyface on the lovestruck ballad driven by the acoustic guitar. Rich’s ebullience meets its match in the thundering band of two guitars, bass, drums, percussionist and keyboards; they hit their marks with consistency, particularly when they slide into funk jams or an Isley Brothers groove that allows Anthony Papageorge to stretch with vigor.
Through it all, though, Rich slides in the subtlest of pop and soul textures to modify the all-out funk attack, borrowing liberally from Stevie Wonder’s early ’70s sides as much as he taps into the Sly and the Family Stone zeitgeist. As an entertainer, Rich’s mix and match technique gives him an upper hand in the current retro-soul movement toplined by Maxwell and Ali, a movement that suggests R&B is doing well by being in a period of transition from which a historically based style, rich in content, may blossom.