BETHESDA, Md. — A historical hit parade that started in 1959 was on full display last weekend by the legendary Isley Brothers.
During a two-night stint Friday and Saturday at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club, the brothers were accompanied by a super-energetic troupe including backup singers, musicians and professional dancers — all packaged in a colorful, show-stopping performance perfectly suited for the holiday season.
Founding member Ronald Isley, now 80, along with younger brother and guitarist Ernie Isley, smoothly set the stage during the Saturday night show, which welcomed a sold-out throng of about 2,500 fans who excitedly enjoyed a setlist featuring a nonstop barrage of hits reflective of Isley’s magic of the past 60 years.
Clad in a red suit, Ron. always a natty dresser, delivered excellent vocalese similar to his recorded versions from days gone by. Ernie, initially introduced as a self-described guitar clone of the late Jimi Hendrix (himself a former member of the Isleys), delivered as expected with expressive solos and soulful chordal action. At 69, the youngest surviving brother is part of what was formerly a six-piece front line of Isley brothers.
On Saturday, Ronald and Ernie did a splendid job of carrying on the Isley brand and tradition. Between many of the songs, Ronald recalled some of the years and times when the tunes were released.
“It was 1969 when I wrote ‘It’s Your Thang,'” he said as the band jumped into a guitar-heavy, psychedelic version of the classic tune. The song also showcased the diversity of the five obviously classically-trained male and female dancers.
Nyema Smythe, a self-described “No. 1 fan,” noted that the two background singers were the Johnson Sisters aka JS, featuring Kim Johnson (Ronald’s wife) and Kandy Johnson.
“Those ladies have worked with Ronnie [for] many years, even before he married Kim,” she said.
Smythe, a Philadelphia native now living in Charles County, Md., said she’s seen the group at least six times in the D.C. and Philadelphia markets. This writer recalls a 1981 Kool Jazz Festival performance in Cincinnati.
The R. Kelly-penned “Contagious” was a hit on this night, especially when Ronald let female audience members accompany him with the catchy lyrics. The moving 1975 ballad “Sensuality” was a welcomed surprise and represented the Isleys’ longtime propensity for classic slow jams.
Ronald Isley told the sold-out audience how much they appreciated their patronage and that they planned to perform every song of their extensive playlist. Ticket prices on this weekend ranged from low $100s to $500.
Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club owner Matthew “Mickey” Williams said he was satisfied with group’s performance and wanted to book them after witnessing their October 2019 performance at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland.