The Isley Brothers bring an up-to-date R&B revue to Gold Country Casino
Anybody who’s been making a living by performing music for 20 years or more deserves my sincere respect, and if they’ve been making music I actually like for more than 40 years, the respect transmutes into reverence. Few performers make it into that category, but of those that do, the Isley Brothers are currently pretty close to the top of my list.
Beginning with a soothing, shimmering wash of lavender and baby-blue lights, last Friday’s concert at Gold Country Casino gently drew the audience into the world of the Isleys’ sensuously psychedelic soul music. Starting with slow, ultra-funky keyboards, bass, guitar and drums, the band established a sinuous yet ethereal groove that perfectly complemented the entrance of lead singer Ronald Isley and his guitar-genius brother, Ernie. Adding to the lushness of the setting were the fine-looking Kandi, Kim and Krystal Johnson, who provided exquisite backing vocal harmonies all night.
And, as if the stage wasn’t full or pretty enough already, when Ronald started off the show by lifting his amazingly fluid falsetto voice to begin the sensuous “Between the Sheets,” we were also treated to performances by a trio of gorgeous lingerie-clad backup dancers who added visual enhancement to many of the night’s songs, elevating the show into the realm of a soul music cabaret.
Ronald intensified the vibe by prodding the audience with “Are you ready to party?” exhortations that reminded me a bit of soul preacher George Clinton at his Funkadelic best. This comparison was only enhanced by Ernie’s amazing guitar solos, which reached their first climax during a fine rendition of “[Who’s] That Lady,” a top-10 hit from 1973 that showcased, by way of behind-the-head and playing-using-your-teeth-as-a-pick techniques, Ernie’s reverence for Jimi Hendrix (whose first recorded performances were on Isley Brothers records), as well as demonstrated his own unique tone and approach to guitar mastery.
With the loose psychedelic groove firmly established, the band rendered dance-party versions of a few more hits, including a bouncy “It’s Your Thing” from 1969 and the pre-Beatles rave-up “Twist and Shout” from 1962, followed seamlessly by a freeform guitar jam from Ernie that had the audience standing up, swaying and waving our arms like a bunch of true acolytes as we sang “join the caravan of love” refrain.
By that point the band could do no wrong, and Ronald showcased the Johnson sisters in a lovely bit of a cappella harmony singing followed up by a crowd-pleasing cover of Michael Jackson’s “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” sung and danced superbly, complete with moonwalks, by the band’s keyboard player. This got everybody happy and set the stage for the Isleys’ first hit song, 1959’s “Shout,” which had many of us throwing our hands up in the prescribed gospel manner.
Fully elevated, we were now ready for Ernie and his custom Fender guitar to take us to the next level, which he did on a huge ballad of doomed love called “Atlantis” featuring several minutes of gorgeous lead guitar jamming accompanied by an ethereal ballet from the dancers. Lovely. But not quite the end of the show.
For the final climax we were treated to a theater set piece involving all of the dancers, backup singers and band members in a depiction of doomed gangster love that involved gorgeous duet singing from Ronald Isley and Kim Johnson, as well as choreographed dramatic dancing accompanied by incredible ensemble playing from the musicians.
In short, the Isleys were and are great showmen, and if we’re lucky enough to have them back, I’m going to see them again.