The Isley Brothers prove they started it

by Ryan Snyder

The Isley Brothers’ red and white suits might have matched the occasion, but their Friday night oneoff at the Durham Performing Arts Center was the furthest thing from another collection of holiday jingles. The respective voice and soul of one of the most important acts in rock and R&B history, Ron and Ernie’s rare performance was a loving, if occasionally uneven, look back at more than 50 years of extraordinary influence.

Of the litany of eras that the Isleys have made an indelible impression, the surviving brother duo, backed by a formidable seven-piece band, settled on their silky bedroom funk for the bulk of their 75-minute set. A 30-minute delay and double-sized servings of a drink called Between the Sheets got the nearly sold-out Durham crowd in the appropriate states of mind, while Ron’s velvety croon and Ernie’s effusive guitar recited an oral history of rock. Early pronouncements by “Between the Sheets” and “”Footsteps In the Dark” were heady reminders of the Isleys’ place in hip-hop, as samples of Biggie’s and Ice Cube’s vocals from “Big Poppa” and “It Was a Good Day” connected the now classic hip-hop tracks to their forbearers.

Ron’s impatience with the oldest of the group’s material showed, however, when it came time for the courtesy nod to “Shout.” He commanded the audience to its feet, only to scurry through the rock keystone, skipping over its vocal break entirely. The drama, it seemed, had finally staled after 53 years. Nods to Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and Ron’s contributions to R. Kelly’s “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” along with Ernie’s smoldering passages in “Voyage to Atlantis,” however, made better use of that time.