Photos by Rachel Cameron.
This year’s R&B and Old School Fest, hosted by Chicago’s V103 station and headlined by the famous Isley Brothers, was jam-packed with talent and concert-goers, boasting great back up talent like Keith Sweat and Mint Condition over the weekend following Thanksgiving.
The first act to take the stage was Bernard Lilly Jr., known as B Lilly, a recent graduate of Providence St. Mel, one of the event’s sponsors. Though he played only a couple of songs, B Lilly’s young energy and simultaneous skill on the keyboard held the attention of the audience as they filtered into the pavilion.
As guests trickled in, local DJs supplied beats for the incredibly energetic crowd to jam to. The music variety, including house, hip-hop and R&B remained true to the spirit of the event, and fans jumped and jived in between seats, aisles, and on stairwells. At one point I even witnessed a twerk-inspired dance-off between a man and woman eager to liven up the down time in between musical acts. V103 radio personalities Doug Banks, Joe Soto and long-time air host Herb Kent also propelled the transitional periods with jokes and commentary.
Second in line was Mint Condition, an energetic band hailing from St. Paul known for its chameleon-like musical tendencies. Sandwiched between newcomer B Lilly and the seasoned Keith Sweat, Mint Condition contributed a more rock inspired set list, lending variety to the evening. Lead singer Stokley Williams’ powerful vocals were a hit with concert-goers and matched the band’s diverse light show, the most aggressive of the evening.
Seeming to go in chronological order from newest artist to more experienced, Keith Sweat was third to perform, no stranger to a crowd. In what I’d imagine is typical fashion for Keith Sweat, a white couch sat onstage throughout his performance, harkening back to the days of 90’s R&B when artists crooned ballads from posh furniture in every video on MTV.
But he knew how to work his audience. About 60% were women in their mid-30s to 50s, and Sweat’s appeal to the single ladies awarded a greater response from the audience than a general appeal to his fans. No doubt this also had to do with the neckline on his black satin shirt slowly opening as it became unbuttoned throughout the performance, revealing a slim waistline and half a dozen gold chains dangling from his neck. Performing a good ten to fifteen minutes later than he was slated to, Sweat was definitely a crowd favorite.
Really, though, everyone was there to see the Isley Brothers, and the audience was thrilled when 73-year-old Ron Isley pronounced that they would be predominantly performing tracks recorded in 1976. Ron and Ernie, ten years Ron’s junior, stuck to the ways of the old school performance style with three female backup singers and three female dancers, totaling at least 14 onstage including the band. Though you could tell that age had slowed them both, the brothers’ experience in the spotlight and the movement of the backup dancers made up for whatever vigor the brothers lacked.
In their live rendition of “Who’s That Lady,” one lone female dancer came on stage wearing a teensy weensy leather leotard, fishnets, heels and a wide-brimmed hat. It was clear that the Isley Brothers were not there just to perform, but to put on a show as well. Both Ron and Ernie looked to be having a great time on stage, their enthusiasm for their music still evident 40 years later.
The event was hugely successful, and the audience one of the most energetic and involved I’ve ever seen. Leaning over to a fellow photographer, I even commented on the fact that you’d never catch millennials dancing and grooving in their seats the way these “older” folks were, which in all honesty is a total shame. Young people might have a thing or two to learn about fun from their wiser, jazz, R&B and old school music-loving superiors. The music of the Isley Brothers wouldn’t be a bad place to start.