"Summer Music Fest" feat. Frankie Beverly & Maze, Patti LaBelle, the O'Jays, Babyface & Tank Toyota Center August 4, 2012
Like a good neighbor, we can always count on soul/funk band Maze and its front man, the eternally white-clad Frankie Beverly, to be here each summer. Cognizant of the fact that they are "living legends," as Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds humbly described them Saturday night, Maze always brings along three or four other acts of the same musical station -- and age -- to preface their get-down journey.
This year's notables included the already mentioned Babyface, Patti LaBelle The O'Jays and "Special Guest Tank" -- not a living legend (or a currently relevant star), but a nice filler-in for folks trailing into the venue.
While Ms. LaBelle offered a been-there-done-that performance, preferring instead to let her still-impressive vocal range and a video montage do the work while she more or less stood in place (more on that later), the male acts seemed determined to prove their virile athleticism, gray hair, potbellies and overactive sweat glands be damned.
Babyface started the trend, forgoing an expected sit-down-and-let-me-talk-to-you-girl performance for high-octane versions of "For the Cool in You," "Every Time I Close My Eyes," "I Only Wanna Be With You" and "Whip Appeal." Ever the maestro, however, he then opted to show off his accolades acquired behind the scenes with his own spin of his best-produced hits.
"I want to take you guys on a little journey," he said, having by now thrown off his Men In Black shades to match a perfectly tailored black suit. A musical reverie soon followed, starting with 1988's "The Deal." A pelvis-thrusting "Every Little Step" follow-up would've made Bobby Brown proud.
He then brought younger brother and After 7 founder Kevon Edmonds onstage and until the end to help him out with Tevin Campbell's "Can We Talk" -- 1993's prelude to Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" -- as well as to assist him in some lascivious dance moves you wouldn't normally expect from the poised producer.
Babyface even let Tank have another stab at fame alongside he and his brother with the Boyz II Men panty-jerking classic, "I'll Make Love to You," complete with a finalizing victory lap around the floor seats.
Decked out in glaring yellow flamenco outfits, the O'Jays -- original members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams and newer member Eric Grant -- looked like they were ready to take flight as they performed a septet of hits. No need to play coy, the group must have thought as they hit the stage and immediately synchronized their way into "Love Train," followed by hits "Backstabbers," "Stairway to Heaven" and "For the Love of Money."
We were at first beset with worry over Levert's incessant sweat-drips in combination with his improvised dance moves, but his mic stand lovemaking throughout the tunes of "We Cry Together" and "Let Me Love You" -- putting Frimmy's winning air sex routine to shame - convinced us that us he was going to be just fine.
"I want to love you 'til your hair gets wet," Levert rumbled, to the delight of the middle-aged women in the audience. "I want to love you 'till you break out in a cold sweat."
As for LaBelle, it was hard to ignore her lackluster performance Saturday. Her trademark toothy, heel-kicking, nail-snapping onstage persona was replaced by a meeker shell of the sassy diva; even the lusty lyrics of "Lady Marmalade" were somewhat quelled.
The crowd noticed. What were deafening screams just minutes earlier when Grant threw his towel into a woman's shaking hands were now noticeably deadened in-seat head bobs and finger-snaps -- polite, but not passionate.
Granted, there was one facet of LaBelle's performance that remained tops: her operatic vocal range, pealing out onto the crowd as an emotive rendering of "If Only You Knew" and a cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now" that ministered to every scorned and seasoned woman in the place.
She also won the award for Best Media Use of the Night; her ending belt-out of "You Are My Friend" was accompanied by a gaggle of Houston gospel choir members and a touching video tribute titled "Gone But Not Forgotten," featuring Patti beside the world's beloved singers: Luther, Michael, Whitney, etc.
And then there was Maze. The band didn't break the night's theme of immediate launches into all-time hits, perfectly fluid breaks between songs and pitch-perfect tone. "Laid Back Girl" brought the audience back to their feet, "Southern Girl" gave the ladies more than enough reason to bounce and weave rhythmically in front of their men, and "We Are One" played Cupid to couples in the audience, who snuggled together under the lead guitarist's funky recreation of that same whining riff that made the original so romantically popular.
And what kind of visitors would Maze be without unleashing a spirit-filled "Before I Let Go" onto the waiting mob? Try as they might, the burly security guards couldn't stop the stampede of two-steppers to the front of the stage when the 65-year-old singer and band performed arguably their biggest hit with as much gusto as if it were their first pilgrimage to Houston.
Personal Bias: You ever have that moment when you didn't realize how much you loved a band or singer until you learned they penned one of your favorite songs? That's what I learned about Maze this weekend. I had no idea they were responsible for "We Are One," one of my favorite songs of all time.
The Crowd: 30-150-year-olds. The ladies: Skintight maxi (and mini) dresses. The guys: Gold, gold and more gold. Gold necklaces, gold hoop earrings, gold watches, galore.
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Overhead In the Crowd: "Baby, I'm gonna do this for you," said a lady behind me, adjusting my dress label. Mildly embarrassing.
Random Notebook Dump: Is it offensive to refer to the O' Jays as the "Old Jays?"