El DeBarge still serving electrifying ’80s love vibes

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SHOWING HIS MUSICAL SKILLS—El DeBarge demonstrates his true musicality on electric keyboards during Feb. 10 show at Birchmere Music Hall. Early in his career, he was limited to “lead singer” status. (Photo by Timothy Cox)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A capacity crowd of just over 500 devoted El DeBarge fans welcomed his electrifying brand of classic pop ‘n soul to the intimate confines of The Birchmere Music Hall and Supper Club in Alexandria, Va.

Though outdoor temps shivered with wind-chills in single-digits, the veteran soul singer warmed the crowd with a continuous serving of his solo hits and tunes made popular by his famous siblings including the ‘70s group Switch and the group he led in the 1980s, DeBarge.

Blessed with a piercing falsetto vocal style, formally described as a first-tenor vocal range, El quickly mesmerized his mostly female audience with tunes that still uniquely typify his multi-octave vocal appeal.

The ladies screamed, as he and a five-piece band delved into such familiar tunes as “All This Love” and “Time Will Reveal.” When the latter tune was released in 1983, this writer always thought it was wrongly titled, and should have been dubbed “This Time Love’s For Real.” At any rate, at this pre-Valentine’s Day performance, El nailed all the piercing-high notes that signify this classic cut. Another treat was his ability to accompany himself on the electric keyboards.

During his group’s heyday in the ‘80s, his Motown management failed to reveal his true musicianship. What we didn’t realize is that this dude is definitely an accomplished piano man, a talent he boldly demonstrated. The significance of DeBarge’s persona is his musicality. He’s indeed a total musician, and also displayed his band-leadership skills throughout the evening.

Other tunes that brought down the proverbial house were “All This Love” and a soothingly soulful cover of the late Marvin Gaye’s hit, “After The Dance.” El recorded that tune with the funk-jazz-fusion quartet Four Play, back in the 1990s. He also covered his tune from Quincy Jones’ award-winning album “Secret Garden,” the signature tune he shared lead vocals with James Ingram and the late Barry White. But the stellar tune of the night was “I Like It.” The tune actually caused several “grown” women in the audience to rush the stage, almost like it was 1985 again, and they were giddy schoolgirls.

El’s backup band should be commended for a flawless performance. Bandleader/bassist Andrian “Egg” Norton noted that the band is a local DC unit known as Phaze II. Andre’s bass lick on “I Like It,” nearly copied the originally-recorded thumb-pluck patterns of “Ready” Freddy Washington, and when El hit the patented final note of the tune, the audience screamed with appreciation. But, speaking of flaws, obviously missing onstage were background vocalists. DeBarge hits and Switch tunes like “There’ll Never Be” and “I Call Your Name” are 50-percent background arrangement-based. So, hopefully in the future, El will consider hiring backup vocalists to fill an obvious void – and not rely on non-talented audience members hitting sour notes. Gotta give him credit though, for nailing the pre-rap on “I Call Your Name.” “I’m a grownass man now,” he exclaimed – to more screaming females. Also credit him with mimicking his big brother Bobby DeBarge’s lead falsetto stylings on all the Switch hits.

A moving tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire leader Maurice White was timely, considering White’s Feb. 4 death. El’s version of “Can’t Hide Love” was accepted with warm applause, as he pointed skyward.

The performance was so powerful and energetic no more tunes were warranted. El even showed the crowd that he definitely has some dance moves. In watching this thin man perform, one had to reminiscence about the contemporaries of his heyday. One Michael Joseph Jackson quickly comes to mind, and reflections of Prince Rogers Nelson also surfaced. Though not as diverse as the Seventies Soul decade of musicianship, the 1980s had its own flavor and fortunately, Eldra Patrick DeBarge is still around to display some of that flavor and magic for the mature folks and the youngins too.

On a final note, it should be pointed out that during the mid-portion of the show, El referred to his illicit drug antics and thanked his audience for their continued support “even after I went to prison. Your love means so much to me,” he said in a heart-felt message. He ended the show with a rousing upbeat, high-energy performance of “Rhythm of the Night,” which exuded a party-like atmosphere throughout the room, as he welcomed several ladies to join him onstage. It definitely added to a fun-filled evening full of love vibrations and laughter.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: In retrospect, it must be recalled that the DeBarges were heir apparent to The Jacksons, considering that both large-family groups were signed to Barry Gordy’s Motown stable (DeBarges on the Gordy label), and both were Midwestern families (DeBarges from Michigan, Jacksons from Indiana). In watching El perform live, when he jumps from the piano stool, his frail frame quickly reveals that he’s from the Michael Jackson era, though DeBarge was never in the class of Jackson as a dancer. Still, he puts on a great performance, and showed that at age 54, the cat still has some pep in the old step. After his rocking performance at the Birchmere, El DeBarge stayed in DC for another night, and performed at The Fillmore theater in Silver Spring, Maryland.).

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