Saturday, November 12, 2011

“Stylistics Live In Norfolk 2005” and “Chi-Lites Live In Norfolk 2005” (both from San Juan Music)

These two concert DVD’s by classic 70’s soul-ballad groups seem to have been around for a few years under different titles - in both cases, “Live At The Convocation Center”, named for the Norfolk, VA venue where these performances were both filmed. Both discs, however, are deserving of reissue.

Of the two, I personally prefer the Styllstics concert, which by no means is intended to denigrate the Chi-Lites’ disc. I happened to see this line-up of the Stylistics about 10 years ago, at Shea’s in Buffalo (on the same bill with The Main Ingredient and Blue Magic), soon after Harold Eban Brown replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Russell Thompkins, Jr. as lead singer. I swear most members of the audience probably had no idea whatsoever that Thompkins was missing, Brown sounds so much like him. One look from the front of the balcony, however, told me that either Thompkins had discovered the Fountain of Youth (Brown is over twenty years younger than Thompkins), or the group had discovered an absolutely ideal new lead voice.

The group, resplendent in red suits, was already in their 50’s by 2005, aside from the then-33-year-old Brown. But if they move a little less athletically than they might have in younger years, they sound just fine. Their smooth ballad style was never really suited to a shake-’em-up-and-down stage show anyway. It’s obvious from the intro to “You’re A Big Girl Now” that they (realistically) now think of themselves less as a current group than as finely-honed purveyors of nostalgia. Indeed, there is something about the atmosphere of this concert - perhaps it’s the audience - that is oddly reminiscent of a PBS “oldies” fundraising special. (I almost hesitate to say that, because when PBS DID bring on a rival Stylistics group, it turned out to be Russell Thompkins’ Jr.’s “New Stylistics”.) The “real” Stylistics still had the skills in 2005, no doubt, but certainly the audience wanted to hear the groups’ hits of the 1970’s performed by the original group (or at least a quartet which had an unbroken continuity dating back to their Golden Era) in the original arrangements. And that’s what they get.

In any event, the Stylistics remain a living entity, not simply a group of aging singers going through the motions. They always were a group whose identity was heavily dependent on the timbre of their falsetto lead vocals. In this department, Harold Eban Brown is virtually the equivalent of Russell Thompkins, Jr. All the songs you might wish to hear at a Stylistics’ concert - both the super-hits and the lesser successes - are here, in well-executed arrangements that are essentially smaller-scale, stripped-down, but easily recognizable versions of the original Thom Bell-produced Philly Soul backing tracks. The songs tend to segue one to the other in a sort-of medley form, yet most are done at full-length, not the “and then we did” tiny snippets some “nostalgia acts” prefer.

Brown is not the most captivating front man, but hIs voice more than makes up what he may lack in charisma. I would suggest that any Stylistics fans would find this concert every bit as satisfying as I did. There is no wasted time, no frills, no bad-joke-filled attempts at humor (okay, one modest attempt), just 57 minutes of Stylistics’ sweet-soul music. That should be good enough for anyone.

Bonus features include a 4-minute ”Behind The Scenes” featurette, showing how the concert was set up, as well as a 5-1/2-minute interview segment.

The Chi-Lites’ DVD follows the same basic format, and indeed appears to have been filmed at the same package-tour concert in Norfolk.

Once again, we are treated to straightforward renditions of the group’s hits, accompanied by a solid band. The differences between the two concerts, though, are telling. For one thing, the Chi-Lites are less dependent on a single dominant personality. They require strong lead vocals by all three up-front members and, with a few jarring exceptions, they deliver. Their stage act features more razzle-dazzle than that of the Stylistics. Whereas thje latter prefer to soothe their audience, the Chi-Lites’ attempt to rouse theirs, even in a ballad medley.

The Chi-Lites charted often between 1969 and 1984, and scraped the bottom of the charts again in 1997-98. Nevertheless, the group’s hits seem by and large to have received less continued exposure through the years than the Stylistics’ songs. I may be wrong, but I’m inclined to think that, only “Oh Girl” and “Have You Seen Her (which are saved for the end of the show) may resonate with the casual listener. But songs like “Toby” and “The Coldest Days Of My Life” definitely deserve their return to the nostalgia spotlight.

Though we only see three Chi-Lites upfront, the harmonies are enhanced by a fourth vocalist, a woman who stands in the background as if she were not an official member of the established all-male lineup. But a little research reveals she is indeed an “official member”; must be a macho image thing. Sadly, most of the original Chi-Lites’ line-up (including Eugene Record) are now deceased, but Marshall Thompson and Robert “Squirrel” Lester” (since deceased as well) appear on this disc.

The bonus features mirror those of the Stylistic disc. Indeed, the backstage set-up featurette looks very much like that on the Stylistics’ DVD, understandable when you consider they were recorded at the same place at the same time. Again,. there are interview excerpts in which the group talks about their biggest hits.

Anyone with a live for sweet 70’s soul vocal groups should have a marvelous time turning back the clock and tossing out the calendar, while watching these two fine concerts.

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