ROCK / Thirty years on, and worth their wait in gold

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The Independent Culture
'WE WERE in an elevator, me and Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr,' says Ronald, lead singer of the Isley Brothers. 'Ringo said, 'Can we make a record of your 'Twist and Shout'?' We said, 'Sure, as long as you do it like we do it, with the oohs.' '

If you have anecdotes like that in your stage patter, even if they are almost certainly apocryphal, you can afford to have a good night's sleep on your laurels. But on Friday night at the Royal Festival Hall, there is no rest for the Isley Brothers. They are still intent on making history, rather than dwelling on it.

Their past is certainly acknowledged. Ronald introduces many of the songs simply by stating the year in which they were released. '1959]' he says, and the audience is already cheering for 'Shout'. But every soul-funk gem from 'Harvest for the World' to 'Smooth Sailin' ' is given such energy and style that it could be new.

Ronald's voice is neither as visceral as James Brown's nor as velvety as Marvin Gaye's, but it has strong elements of both. And his early experience in gospel has left him a master of the audience-galvanising call-and-response routine.

Ernie plays awesome, swooping, liquid guitar. His homage to Jimi Hendrix, who was once in the Brothers' band, goes as far as plucking the strings with his teeth and doing to 'God Save the Queen' what Hendrix did to 'The Star Spangled Banner'.

Marvin, the third remaining brother, looks like Lenny Henry's character Theophilus P Wildebeest and plays bass that is barely audible, though that may be because the Brothers are supplemented by another bassist, not to mention three keyboard players (one of whom is also a disgustingly salacious dancer), a drummer, a percussionist, and three female backing singers.

One of these is Ronald's wife, soul diva Angela Winbush. She takes centre stage for several songs, including Gaye's 'Inner City Blues', and the range and control of her vocals put even her husband to shame.

When Bobby Womack appears for the encore, even the respectable Royal Festival Hall audience are twisting and shouting. Looking at it logically, there must have been flaws in this two-and-a-half-hour show, but I can't think of any. The Isley Brothers last played in Britain 30 years ago, Ronald says. 'I promise we'll come every year from here on in.' Book your tickets now.

It's always the children who suffer. During Whitesnake's show at the Hammersmith Apollo, their leader, David Cov erdale, dedicates a song to his 15-year-old daughter. Well, you know how embarrassing it is when you're 15 and your dad turns up at the school gates with his V-necked jumper and a jacket with patched elbows. Imagine how you'd feel if he were wearing leather trousers, flicking his long blonde hair, swinging a microphone stand over his head and shouting: 'I'm gonna slide it in/ Right to the top/ Slide it in/ Ain't never gonna stop.' Nightmare.

Whitesnake's Greatest Hits album (EMI), now at No 4 in the chart, summarises a career that, if not as venerable as the Isleys', is older than Cover dale's daughter, so perhaps it is only to be expected that so many of tonight's audience could well have teenage children of their own. Nor should it be surprising that the band are by no means surprising themselves. They have been practising those heavy-metal cliches for a long time and they've got them down to a T. The guitarist tossing a plectrum into the audience every eight bars; the pneumatic-drill drum solo lasting six minutes (ample time for a trip to the toilet); Coverdale's ragged squawk, the kind of voice more usually heard saying 'I've accidentally drunk a cupful of vinegar] Get me some water, quick]' And those names: Rudy Sarzo, Warren DeMartini, Paul Mirkovich, Denny Carmassi, Adrian Vandenberg (the Flying Dutchman to his mates). No scriptwriter could get away with those.

It's heavy metal as you remember it, only safer. The genre once had the reputation of being dangerous. A satanic lyric or a threatening sleeve illustration would periodically hit the headlines. Whitesnake are as threatening as a night at the bingo. Extravagant guitars, a frenetic lightshow, some bona-fide blues, but no chickens' heads being bitten off. After all, this is a family show. 'Everyone in the world I love, apart from my Aunt Sylvia, is here tonight,' says Coverdale, the big softy. 'Thank you for making me feel proud in front of my family.' The fans are part of the family too, and I don't suppose they want any variation on the formula. They are happy to punch the air and clap their hands above their heads (hard rockers don't clap any other way).

They will be doing the same thing in 20 years' time, when, I predict, Whitesnake will be playing 'Slide it in', while David Coverdale's abashed grandchildren look on.

Whitesnake: Sheffield City Hall, 0742 735295, Mon; Manchester Apollo, 061-273 3775, Tues; Newport Centre, 0633 259676, Fri; Plymouth Pavilion, 0752 229922, Sat; and touring.