When keyboardist and long-time O’Jays musical director Dennis “Doc” Williams introduced the Philly Soul titans to the sold-out Durham Performing Arts Center crowd last Sunday by claiming, “Can’t nobody sing a ballad like these brothers,” he forgot to mention that they’re pretty solid in the dance category as well. Even closing in on 50 years with the group, founding members
Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, along with late ‘90s addition Eric Grant, could still stick and move as they delivered a highly polished, propulsive set of some of their greatest hits. Though the handful of ballads that appeared in their 75-minute set were indeed resounding and sincere, when it came to the sweaty dance numbers, the O’Jays threw them down like a group still bridging soul to disco.
Though practically all of the show’s material was primarily drawn from So Full of Love, Identify Yourself, Family Reunion and Survival — albums representing the thenreborn band’s commercial peak — the O’Jays are hardly a tossed-off nostalgia band with diminished talents, cashing in on the past. Backed by a superlative (and at times, dominating) 12-piece band, the O’Jays poured themselves into the hits, a modus operandi was established by the end of a furious opening medley of “Unity,” “Survival” and “Give the People What They Want,” with sweat streaming down the husky face of Levert as he sang the climactic verses over its famously emphatic break beat.
Levert, who has soldiered on as the group’s spiritual heart despite the loss in the past few years of both of his sons, noted musicians in their own right, lent some implicit insight into why the band went with comedian Terry Tuff as their opening act whenever he addressed the audience. Maybe it’s his voice and presence that recall Cedric the Entertainer doing the cussin’ preacher bit, but even the most innocuous comments he made drew uproarious laughter from the predominantly middle aged and up audience. Conversely, he was the pivot point when the group wanted the slow things down, tuning his charisma for sultry pillow talk on slow jams “Crying Together” and “Forever Mine.”
Of course, just as easily as they could make the females swoon, they could have them up and out of the seats. Women old enough to be grandmothers boogied down to the swinging groove of the disco classic “I Love Music” and the stop-timed intro of their revitalizing hit “Back Stabbers.” The band driving all this was worthy of introduction even if it ate up all of 10 minutes of valuable set time, made well worth it when Williams acknowledged the four-man horn unit by stating, “This is where we keep all the white people,” and followed it up with their most recognizable hit and message of unity “Love Train.”
The O’Jays saved their funkiest bit for the conclusion as bassist Jimmy Williams dropped the submerged low end to “For the Love of Money,” but there was nonetheless the sticking feeling there was so much unaddressed in their set. The first act of the group’s career before the band was blessed by the touch of songwriting dynamos Gamble and Huff went completely unacknowledged. Then there were the band’s lesser-known works that have nonetheless made a marked impact on pop music. Their minor hit “Now That We Found Love” helped make Heavy D a household name, and the untimely death of the rapper in November presented the perfect opportunity to remind their audience what an outstanding song it is. Still, The O’Jays came to give the people what they want, and the people got just got.
The O’Jay’s painted a coat of soul on the DPAC. Right: Eddie Levert gives the people what they want. (photos by Ryan Snyder)