Nearly 65 and performing for nearly 50 years, Ronnie Isley is a man who know how to hold a stage. Not even a stroke or the fact that he could be celebrating the release of the Isley Bros.’ new album “Baby Makin’ Music” (DefJam) in jail for tax evasion can dampen his irrepressible stage presence — he’s a banty little guy who’s sure of his appeal.
But his initial appearance isn’t assuring: Following a short instrumental introduction featuring Ernie Isley on guitar, he steps out, wielding the cane he’s used since his R. Kelly-engineered remodel as Mr. Biggs, wearing a light pink suit, jacket just a little too snug, the Hollywood-waist pants low and tight, allowing his belly to hang over them like a fleshy eave.
But when he opens his mouth, his silk-sheet tenor convinces you. His sheer joy in performing — his broad grin and the way his expressive, thick, Groucho Marx eyebrows stay in constant motion — trumps his faults, even the fact that he can’t remember A Place Called Home, the charity the evening’s concert is supporting (although he does graciously invite members of the org’s music program to join him on stage for “Harvest for the World”).
Isley’s voice is still a potent instrument, whether crooning a woman into bed, imploring the aud to “Fight the Power” or pacing the stage as the sinister Biggs while singing “Down Low” (which now seems like an early run for Kelly’s ongoing “Trapped in the Closet” — a Lifetime movie of the week compared to Kelly’s obsessive mixture of “24” and “Red Shoe Diaries”).
Yes, age has taken some of the suppleness away, and “Shout” doesn’t kick into its ecstatic, double-time coda anymore. And Ernie, a relatively youthful 54, still looks and plays like the result of a Venn diagram plotting the meeting point of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards. Standing together, it’s possible to look at them and imagine that this is what OutKast will look like in 2036.
But for all their appeal, the show — which covers almost the Isleys’ entire career (while ignoring the new album) in a scant hour — feels thin and slightly unsatisfying. With keyboards playing the horn parts, the band lacks punch; on the ballads they turn lugubrious. And the lingerie-clad models that occasionally slink across the stage are less Vegas showgirl than Fredericks of Hollywood trunk show. It’s a production that’s far below the career and talent of the stars.