So among the questions uppermost in the minds of those waiting for the group to come on at the Brixton Fridge last weekend was, are we going to get the hits as Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards intended, or a bunch of scratch-mixed approximations?
Reduced by 25 per cent as Joni has just had a baby, they still look willowy enough to defy the passage of time. Any notions of the shimmering, disco diva glamour that went with being part of The Chic Organization though, are no longer apparent. Tonight, the wardrobe department has only been stretched as far as glittery tops for Kim and Debbie and a bustier-type affair for Kathy; everything else could be worn in the street without getting pointed at. There's nothing on stage except themselves (the backing is taped, the vocals live), and in this wide open space the choreography can afford to be energetic. But it's far more rough than ready - one of them gets a good step going, the others start to copy, and when they've fallen in, they can't stop grinning at each other. This goes a long way to making this show work - if they're having so much fun, it would be churlish of the audience not to as well.
And, of course, there's the singing, A few bars into the opening number, 'All-American Girls', any apprehensions about technological intrusions vanish. There are no gimmicks whatsoever, just Sister Sledge doing what they do best - harmonising with an expertise that comes fairly naturally after more than two decades performing together. Perhaps the enthusiasm has been raised to make up for the absenteeism, but these three-part arrangements seem much bigger than the records ever did and they deliver with a soaring confidence. Remarkably, 13 years after 'He's The Greatest Dancer', 'Lost In Music', 'Thinking Of You' and, of course, 'We Are Family' first came out, the group can still make them sound spontaneous. Then, for anybody who's still not impressed, halfway through there's a gospel number, 'Give Yourself to Jesus', sung a capella.
Backstage, Kim tells how this song has always been in their set, while Kathy goes on to claim that - in spite of these dedicated dance club circumstances - it's probably being better received these days than it's ever been: 'People genuinely stop and listen to it now, appreciate it for what it is.' Appreciate it as a performance rather than for its spiritual qualities that is, which in turn goes a long way to explaining this interest in Sister Sledge this time round. Unlike the 1984 resurgence when even they are at a loss to explain why the songs were hits again, the current vogue for singing put them in demand again.
'We have never stopped touring,' Kim maintains. 'We were in litigation with our US record company for a long time, but we did some recording in Italy quite recently that did very well there, and Kathy has had a solo album out. So music has continued to be our livelihood, but without the kind of success we had in the beginning of the Eighties. Then suddenly acts like En Vogue, Boyz II Men, Shai and Charles & Eddie are having hits and everybody's interested in singers . . . '
Kathy says, 'We were thankful when that interest started again, because from when we started harmonising as very little children, we were told that as long as we could sing properly structured songs - and put on a good show - we'd always be in demand. So we stuck at it even when it seemed that singing had been lost to the techno side of things. Now it's swung the other way, we're in this great position where new songwriters are writing real songs again, producers like Michael Bivins (Boyz II Men's mentor) and Teddy Riley (Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown) are using harmonies and melodies, the industry is looking for groups to release immediately, and we haven't got to spend time learning anything.'
Sister Sledge are currently on a month-long tour playing to full houses in the UK's larger night-clubs. They can also entertain the prospect of their first chart hit in five years and a long-term record deal under which an album of new, largely self-composed songs is planned for later this year. This is important to them, not simply because the same six songs must get dreadfully tedious at times, but to prove they are not producers' puppets.
But will people accept a 1993 Sister Sledge? Twelve months ago the first new Chic album for years failed to impress, and on tonight's showing it's almost impossible to imagine this group doing anything else. The eager energy they put into songs with such lyrics as 'We're caught in a trap / There's no turning back / We're lost in music' combines with the gimpy dancing and far from over-styled stage wear and they become the absolute epitome of post-Saturday Night Fever disco: enthusiastic, easily pleased, inoffensively hedonistic and ever so slightly naive. (Quite understandably, the 1985 No 1 'Frankie' is left out - it would have broken the spell).
They agree it wasn't too wise of Rodgers & Edwards to come from nowhere with a new album, because, as Debbie explains, the timing is everything. 'You have to exercise some restraint, especially after being out of the public eye for a long time. We've already recorded new tracks - here in England - and were holding them until the singing resurgence had gathered strength. Plus we wanted to put out our Greatest Hits package first, because we had to reintroduce ourselves, to give people a reason to check out the new material. It's important, because if it fails it'll be practically impossible to get the chance to try again. You have to plan it carefully, which is what this tour's all about.'
And if this carefully conceived campaign comes off, they will be perhaps better prepared than some of the more contemporary acts. Although they'll point out, rather sniffily, that they're an Eighties band - 'we didn't have a hit until the second half of 1979' - it's not been lost on them that in the audience there are more than a few platform soles, that flares are flapping and the floppy velvet caps are worn at carefully contrived angles. 'We couldn't believe what we've seen people wearing and in the shops here,' says Kathy. 'If we come back to tour with a full show later this year, we know exactly what we'll wear - we've still got some of our original costumes at the back of our wardrobes.'
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