January 16, 2012

The O'Jays Live Up to Legacy in Concert

St. Petersburg showed the O’Jays lots of love this past Thursday night. So much love, in fact, that just about every song they performed met with an instant mix of feminine swoons and joyful sing-a-longs to fill the majestic Mahaffey Theater.

And the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers earned that love all night. More to the point, they worked for it, spinning and gliding in synchronized steps, engaging the audience at every turn, and demonstrating a commitment to not just sing but entertain.

From the get-go, with a high-energy opening medley that included “Unity,” “Survivor,” and “Give the People What They Want,” original members Walter Williams and Eddie Levert, along with relative newcomer Eric Nolan Grant—all clad in matching white, sequined suits—personified showmanship and class.

Williams, for his part, was in fine form, enriching familiar hits and fan favorites with suave, considerate treatments—his lead vocals on an extended rendition of “Forever Mine” and, later, “Use Ta Be My Girl,” were bona fide highlights—yet it was Levert who delivered the show's most soul-gripping, heartfelt moments. He’s suffered tremendous grief in recent years, including the loss of two adult sons, musicians Gerald and Sean Levert, in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Hes got the strength of Job, Williams said of his bandmate and friend, and he's bounced back, hard.

Indeed, that resilience was evident and plentiful. With boyish charisma and seemingly boundless energy belying his age (he'll turn 70 in June), Levert enlivened both slowjams (Lovin You," Stairway to Heaven, Cry Together) and social statements (Backstabbers, For the Love of Money, Love Train) with urgent, earnest conviction.

The opportunity to experience in-person such legends of American music is growing increasingly scarce these days. With this spirited and superlative performance, though, the O’Jays lived up to their legacy.