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Friday, Feb. 22, 2013

The O’Jays @ Potawatomi Bingo Casino

Feb. 21, 2013

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Spearheaded by the songwriting/production team Gamble & Huff, the Philly soul renaissance produced almost impossible volumes of great music throughout the ’70s, the biggest and most memorable of which came from The O’Jays. In a lot of ways, the trio was an odd fit for the sensual Philly sound. They were from Ohio, for one thing, but they were also tougher and grittier than many of the tender-voiced softies recording for Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International label, thanks to lead singer Eddie Levert’s mighty bellow. The O’Jays may have sung of the same pure love and utopian ideals as their peers, but with Levert leading the charge, they did so with a whole lot more volume and authority.

Levert is 70 now, and he looks it. When The O’Jays took the stage in sparkly purple suits and matching shoes for their sold-out show at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s Northern Lights Theater Thursday night, he appeared a bit hunched over and glassy-eyed, and a solid half-step or two behind his dancing bandmates (fellow original O’Jay Walter Williams, still angel-voiced after all these years, and relative new guy Eric Grant, who joined in the ’90s, filling the chair originally vacated by the 1977 death of William Powell). His voice showed signs of age, too. It’s lost some of its range and taken on more gravel over the years, yet those changes haven’t come at the expense of its raw power. Levert now sings in an awesomely imprecise wail. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always a thing to behold.

And he was damned if he was going to let his age stop him from performing his ass off, having a great time, and showing the audience one, too. He started perspiring heavily early in the show dancing to “Give the People What They Want,” and didn’t stop for the rest of the show. At points during the performance he humped his microphone, did an old-man version of the booty dance, and sweet-talked women in the front row. “If I seem a little wavy,” he explained, “it’s because we just got off the Soul Train Cruise, and I’m still rocking like I’m on the boat.”

Some of the night’s entertainment value undoubtedly came from seeing a man who very much looks his age not acting his age, and yet Levert never embarrassed himself; there was a thrill in watching such a veteran showman commit himself to the same physically demanding routine he’s been performing since his youth. It helped, of course, that the trio was backed by a crack 12-piece band and had a whole lot of hits to draw from—for the finale, they danced through three of the most enduring soul hits of the ’70s, “Love Train,” “Used To Be My Girl” and “For the Love of Money,” in quick, sweaty succession. Their best days may be well behind them, but The O’Jays seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as ever.