ANAHEIM — As the social psychologists keep telling us, it's a great advantage for kids if they can have a dad around.
What's true in the home proved doubly true on the concert stage Thursday night at the Celebrity Theatre. Those talented but wayward Levert boys, Gerald and Sean, tended to mess around when left to their own devices in an aimless and stilted set with their contemporary R&B trio, LeVert. But they stopped the nonsense and took care of some satisfying soul business in brief individual pairings with papa Eddie Levert, a still youthful veteran of more than three decades of singing with the O'Jays.
LeVert has been a much stronger commercial force than the O'Jays since the two Levert brothers and their partner, Marc Gordon (all in their early 20s), made their debut in 1986. The aim of the current "Family Affair" tour, with LeVert opening for the O'Jays, is ostensibly to celebrate the success of a new generation while showing that the old one hasn't slipped.
But the main impression left after 55-minute sets by each group was that the O'Jays' traditional soul music method--focused, impassioned singing in service of full-bodied \o7 songs\f7 --will always triumph over the new R&B style, with its emphasis on style and high-tech dazzle.
LeVert seemed to forget that the first obligation of a singer is to put across a song. Then again, that may be unavoidable when the material is as thin and forgettable as most of LeVert's cliched repertoire of numbers about romance and lust.
The group's biggest hit, "Casanova," is an appealing exception, with a light, bouncy melody and a small germ of originality in its lyrical concept. LeVert gave it tepid treatment, but the group did better with "Just Coolin'," a song that merged rap with singing and strong, funky playing from the trio's eight-piece backing band. It showed that rap, which usually loses a lot of its sonic appeal in translation from the recording studio to the stage, can benefit on stage from the presence of a band and a measure of melody.
LeVert was energetic enough in its funky numbers, with feverish unison hip-hop dance steps featuring wild swinging of limbs. But much of that energy seemed forced and calculated, rather than spurred by the music itself.
In one obvious contrivance, Gerald Levert rose from his stool during a romantic ballad, raced to the apron of the circular, rotating stage, dropped to his knees and began emoting in a husky voice. This burst of not-so-spontaneous ardor came off more like an inexperienced athlete's laborious attempt to execute some complex new technique.
Another basic that LeVert neglected is the notion that harmony is the highest achievement of a vocal group. Instead, LeVert emphasized discord in a misguided and trite sibling rivalry sequence in which the two brothers tried to outdo each other's vocal gymnastics.
The idea of vocal togetherness asserted itself when when Sean Levert started singing a solo bit, and a husky baritone from some unseen source began weaving itself around his lead lines, embellishing and prodding. It was Eddie Levert, who walked out of the darkness and onto the stage in his street clothes to join his youngest son for the LeVert set's best moment.
Later, during the O'Jays' set, it was Gerald's turn to come out and join his dad. Their duet on "Up Where We Belong" was clearly designed as a big, show-stopping ballad--and it had just the desired effect. Eddie Levert alternated between a smoky-voiced soul delivery and clear, pop-inflected phrasings. Gerald, less versatile but equally impassioned, joined his father in a soaring Icarus and Daedalus flight that had a happy ending: This Icarus had the sense to match his father's vocal steps instead of flying off on his own and risking an unfortunate meltdown.
With their smooth, practiced choreography and well-plotted medleys of hits (two medleys in one show is overdoing it), the O'Jays weren't out to provide any surprises. But the show was classy and impeccably sung.
The vocal interweave between Levert, Walter Williams and Sammy Strain gave room for Williams and Levert to stretch out as soloists, but not so far as to lose sight of the song itself. Even on a joking, rap-style number, "Have You Had Your Love Today?" the emphasis was on singing with focus.
While the younger Leverts seem to think that pelvic thrusts and grinds are the way to display ardor on a romantic ballad, their father avoided such puerile sexual posing and let his voice show the way to ecstasy. His spasmodic but less baldly risque movements seemed to flow naturally from the emotional content of such ballads as "Serious Hold on Me."
After his sons had taken their clumsy shot, Levert showed the right way to handle the thing. What else is a father for, anyway?