Live: Isaac Hayes Fights Through It


I’m talking about the power of love now

Isaac Hayes
Prospect Park Bandshell
June 12, 2008

Isaac Hayes co-wrote “Soul Man” and “Hold On I’m Comin'” for Sam & Dave. He played the Duke in Escape From New York. He recorded a ten-minute disco-funk epic about threesomes. He headlined the 1972 Wattstax festival wearing a vest made out of chains. He showed up on “I Can’t Go to Sleep,” one of the most hallucinatory songs in Wu-Tang Clan history, basically playing Ghostface’s conscience. He wrote the euphoric “Theme From Shaft” and won an Oscar for it, becoming the first-ever black non-actor to win one. In the early 70s, he routinely turned Burt Bacharach pop standards into unrecognizable woozy endless psych-funk odysseys, which then became hits. At an age when most of his peers were either dead or fading away on the nostalgia circuit, he accepted a voice-actor role on a gleefully offensive cartoon about kids made from construction-paper cutouts, playing a character that spoofed his sexed-out persona, and he scored one of his biggest-ever international hits in character. Basically, Isaac Hayes is one of the most unfadeable badasses in pop-music history, and so it was an unpleasant shock to see that a stagehand had to help him to the stage at the Prospect Park bandshell last night.

Hayes suffered from a stroke a couple of years ago, and since then he’s cancelled a bunch of shows and given a bunch of rambling and incoherent interviews, so I feared the worst from his live show. This was the first in the Celebrate Brooklyn free-show series, and I’d guess that a pretty significant part of the crowd had no idea who he was, that they just came out to have picnics and hear music. That’s not a bad thing; this was a beautiful night, and I’m not one to complain about any free show taking place ten minutes from my apartment. But shows like this from veteran performers can easily turn into bland cruise-ship session-musician hell, and Hayes’s setup seemed to indicate that this one would be heading in that direction: no strings, three dudes with tinny keyboards responsible for all orchestral flourishes. And for the first couple of forgettable uptempo songs, the only real encouraging sign was Hayes’s voice, an iconically deep and sonorous baritone that’s been blessedly unaffected by the stroke. It’s weird hearing that voice come out of an actual human being, absolutely the same as it was on albums made forty years ago. But then, it was hard to actually see Hayes from most points in the Bandshell area; he spent most of the show stoically seated, possibly playing piano but I couldn’t see well enough to say for certain, only speaking to the crowd to say hi or to say the name of whichever member of his backing band had just played a solo. And they played a lot of solos.

But the whole atmosphere changed when “Walk On By” started. Even it its truncated form, that song’s heavy reverbed-out slow-burn atmospherics just kill, and the band nailed it perfectly: the twang on the guitar, the weightless backing singer bum-bums, everything. And I can’t say enough good things about the string of hits that followed: “Do Your Thing,” “”Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Soul Man.” Hayes not only still has the whole opening monologue of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” down perfectly; he actually hit every inflection and turn of phrase without struggling or stuttering once. I knew exactly what was coming when Hayes rose from his chair near the end of the show, but I still got a rush hearing the opening cymbal-tics from “Theme from Shaft.” Through the song’s long intro, Hayes conducted his band like an orchestra, finally turning around to intone those deathlessly kitschy lyrics. Hayes held the stage for a good hour and a half, a deeply impressive feat for someone whose body has seen better days. So: a free outdoor show on a beautiful night in my neighborhood from a musical legend who might not be altogether well but who still puts serious work into his live show: This is basically why I live in New York.