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Story and Photos by Andy ArgyrakisBetween his time as a songwriter and producer within the historic Stax Records family throughout the mid-1960s to releasing the now revered soul CD Hot Buttered Soul nearly forty years ago to scoring the soundtrack to the iconic blaxploitation film Shaft in 1971, Isaac Hayes has certainly achieved celebrated status. Add in a series of funk collections throughout the 1970s, sporting bling long before rappers were king, a highly publicized bankruptcy, plus an unexpected comeback as the voice of Chef on Comedy Central's "South Park" from 1997-2006 and he's amassed an audience that's just as diverse as his history.
As intriguing as that versatility appeared on paper, seeing the star circa 2008 didn't quite live up to the legend, which can be credited to a stroke in 2006 that's considerably slowed down the singer and piano player. Though his attempts at carrying on after the illness were rather respectable when revisiting the always attractive Ravinia Festival, his execution across 75-minutes was far less fluid than yesteryear. Sure, his seven piece band and three background singers were a saving grace after he slowly entered to the thumping beats of "Don't Let Go," but even the barrage of sounds couldn't overpower Hayes' slower than usual delivery and generally lethargic reflexes.
The enduring "Walk On By" may have earned countless howls from fans, but it was clearly the familiarity factor over the sluggish presentation. A stab at the Hayes-penned "Soul Man" (made most famous by Sam & Dave) earned an even more favorable response, but suffered from forgotten lyrics, plus the lack of a live brass section (tackily supplemented by keyboard programming). Thankfully the trio of synthesizers was put to much better use come the club classic "Theme >From Shaft," during which Hayes stood at center stage to conduct the band in between the handful of timeless lyrics. But just as he seemed to get in the groove, the encore-less evening ended abruptly, surprisingly omitting his debut disc's mainstay "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." Like fellow stroke victim Dick Clark's pre-mature return to television, all were undoubtedly happy to see a persevering Hayes, but his show was still a bit uncomfortable to sit through.
Even more alarming was an opening performance by Roberta Flack, who not only appeared thirty minutes after her scheduled curtain time (shaving her co-headlining slot almost in half), but was often times incoherent and wholeheartedly unpolished. Perhaps flustered by her tardiness or confused with having to re-work the set list, the songstress nervously jumped between the microphone and piano (without actually playing it) during the jazzy opener "Oasis," followed by a random rant about Nelson Mandela. And the was just the beginning of her awkward and downright strange show, which included a somewhat off key cover of Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me" then rushing through a third of her signature "Killing Me Softly" and allowing the audience to pick up the slack as she thanked Lauryn Hill and The Fugees for "bringing the song into the 21st century."
She then admitted her time was almost expired but promised to squeeze out "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face," despite inexplicably diving into a comedic impression of Janet Jackson that went way over the older audience's head. In an effort to move the night along, the house lights came on to prod Flack off the stage, though she commanded the band to bust into DeBarge's "Love Me In a Special Way" even after announcing "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face" a mere minute earlier! After a quick verse and chorus of the cover, stagehands nervously ushered the opener to the sidelines, but not before a quick round of band introductions and a final bow over the disjointed spectacle (sans "Where Is the Love," "The Closer I Get To You," "Set the Night To Music" and "Tonight, I Celebrate My Love") that wasn't even worth wasting enough breath to boo. At least what lacked in entertainment was made up for environment with lawn dwellers (who seemed to be digging the venue's new dining deck) relaxing for a beautiful summer evening under the stars as pavilion patrons caught a breathtaking sunset in the wings of the park's gorgeous greenery.
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