Variety and versatility, within the elastic confines of contemporary black pop music, were the hallmarks of the Budweiser Superfest that played before a near sellout audience at the Capital Centre on Saturday night and into yesterday's predawn hours.
Five of the biggest names on the soul charts--Aretha Franklin, Kool & the Gang, Maze, Sister Sledge and Patrice Rushen--all performed, for the most part, up to their platinum reputations. And generally, their wide-ranging styles and differing senses of a music esthetic proved more harmonious than disconcerting.
Take, for example, the contrast between Patrice Rushen, the concert opener, and the following act, Sister Sledge.
An honors graduate of the School of Commercial Fusion, Rushen has built a career in merging light funk riffs with breezy jazz phrasing, all neatly tied together with her delicate handling of electric piano and vocals. Rushen, hair braided but decidedly not the bad girl, exudes innocent sexuality.
On the other hand, sisters Kathie, Debbie, Kim and Joni Sledge have grown from one more group of cute, talented teen-agers in the early '70s to women who are comfortable flaunting their sexuality on stage; it's something that gives their often uninspired, yet commerically successful, music the context it had lacked for so long.
It's inconceivable that 10 years ago Kathie Sledge, with walk-on David Simmons, could have performed a love duet whose refrain repeats, "You fill me up."
Another twist of the night's theme, Maze, featuring its charismatic lead singer and songwriter Frankie Beverly, tucked the audience in its pocket and simply walked away with it. When black pop was defining itself in cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia, Maze was claiming California. The sound is laid-back, the lyrics introspective waxing philosophic. And when urgent, it pleads with listeners instead of commanding them as funk does.
The poorest moment of Superfest, however, came at the close of Maze's performance when the group failed to give a most-deserving audience an encore. Time was probably a concern; unfortunately, much was wasted because crews took up to 45 minutes to reset the stage between acts.
The long wait for Kool & the Gang and Aretha Franklin, who closed the show, was almost a fatal blow, particularly to Franklin, who still sounds every bit like the Queen Mother of Soul.