A diet of all sweets is no way to eat, and it's not the way to listen to soul music either.
The menu Friday night at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim had a distinct early-'70s flavor: That's when the three groups on the bill--the Stylistics, the Dramatics and the Chi-Lites--had the hits that keep their fans coming back.
The show treated a near-capacity house to a predominantly confectionary taste: the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites depended almost exclusively on their falsetto lead singers; only the Dramatics offered a rounded, satisfying sound that drew from all the basic nutritional groups of male soul singing, from a grainy baritone to a creamy tenor falsetto.
Sweet sorrow was the emotional savor of the Chi-Lites' 45-minute opening set. With his plaintive falsetto sounding sturdier than it did on the group's hit recordings, lead singer Eugene Record was well-equipped to deliver as much melancholy as the audience could stand. By mixing tears with the sugar in his voice, Record kept thing interesting.
Once a quartet, now a trio, the Chicago-based Chi-Lites opened with the main course: "Oh Girl," a bit of lovely melancholia that was a No. 1 hit in 1972. The song's ache (which was enhanced by wistful tootling on a melodica) was repeated on a number of other ballads. All of them worked well, but they pretty much seconded (and thirded and fourthed) that opening emotion from "Oh Girl."
The Chi-Lites tried to change the pace with some antic dancing and slapstick moves. Some of it was entertaining, some merely corny. They would have been better off just singing their most effective pace changer and showstopper, "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People," but the political-funk workout was left unplayed. The Chi-Lites' set was compromised throughout by intrusively plangent sounds from snare drum and cymbals.
The headlining Stylistics also performed as a trio, down from the original five. It might as well have been a solo show by Russell Thompkins Jr., the lead singer. Thompkins' falsetto was a marvel--soaring, reedy, operatic and inexhaustible. But for all that, it wasn't an especially endearing voice. Almost an hour of it without rest was far too much of a good thing. But judging from the shaky results the few times Airrion Love and Herb Murrell took over lead vocals, Thompkins' dominance was a necessity.
The Stylistics' set was so heavy on the sweet Philadelphia-soul ballads that it quickly became cloying (although it was undeniably a pleasure to hear Thompkins take portions of "You Make Me Feel Brand New" into the stratosphere). It didn't help that the trio's idea of a lively change of pace was a rendition of Rick Astley's tepid "Never Gonna Give You Up."
The stage presentation was annoyingly slick (including astrological self-introductions by the three singers: "My name is Russell Thompkins, and I'm the Aries of the group."). An expert, well-drilled backing band helped maintain as high an energy level as the material would permit.
The Dramatics' zestful set made one wonder about the Detroit group's place in pop history had it been blessed with Grade A material. The five-voice harmonies featured backup singers interlocking in classic Temptations style behind compelling lead singers. Ron Banks provided an assured, effortless falsetto that carried some bite, while L.J. Reynolds shook some mighty baritone grit from his compact body. Lenny Mayes provided flexibility, spelling the two main soloists with some nice leads of his own.
The Dramatics offered rich ballads, including "In the Rain" and a good, rhythmic version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." They balanced the balladry with a bit of funk--notably the rousing set closer, "Get Up and Get Down."
With a sharp, energetic band, some nice dance steps and a sense of camaraderie on stage, the Dramatics, as far as performance goes, had more to offer than the Temptations did in their recent show at the Celebrity Theatre. But while the Temptations, and all the other A-list soul vocal groups, have archives full of wonderful songs, the Dramatics' best material is merely good. That, in the eyes of pop history, makes all the difference.