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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
he idea of a DVD capturing a concert that brought together the brightest stars of the Philadelphia International label, including the O’Jays, Bunny Sigler, and the Delfonics, is pretty exciting for any classic soul fan – at least before the discovery of the small print on the back cover, which reads “Recorded Live on June 7th, 2008.” Catching these performers in their ‘70s heyday would have been electrifying, but filming them now, during the fairground soul revue twilight of their careers, can’t be anything but misguided, right?
Wrong. “Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia Live in Concert” takes the sweaty, sad vibe of a million Vegas buffets and PBS pledge drives and turns it on its ear, sparing no expense in bringing the surviving members of the PIR stable to an appreciative (albeit seemingly rather small) audience for one more night of Philly soul. There are no karaoke tracks or rumpled Sansabelt slacks on this stage – Sony sprung for a dozen HD cameras and a live orchestra for the show, filmed in the summer of 2008 at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City.
It certainly bears mentioning that hardcore Philly soul fans will have plenty to quibble with here – the Delfonics, the O’Jays, and the Stylistics (billed here as Russell Thompkins Jr. and the New Stylistics) bear little resemblance to their classic incarnations, and Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes don’t even have their namesake, who died over 10 years ago – but whatever time has done to the performers, it hasn’t touched the music, which all sounds terrific. Nor has it left a spot on the artists’ sense of showmanship; they might not be as spry as they once were, but all of these singers still know how to spin, sway, and rock a tailored suit just as well as they ever did. The show looks like so much fun, you’re liable to think twice about laughing off those ads for whatever nth-generation incarnation of some oldies act is playing your local casino next weekend.
The setlist boasts a baker’s dozen of Philadelphia International’s greatest hits, from early tracks by non-PIR artists produced by label founders Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart”) to iconic Philly soul classics (“Me & Mrs. Jones,” performed here by Bunny Sigler). Gamble and Huff are in the audience, of course, basking in the glow of a year in which they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – and in which Sony pulled out all the stops to commemorate PIR’s classic era, cleaning out the vaults for a boxed set, a rarities collection, and a number of reissues. Given the shoddy treatment afforded many of rock’s soul survivors, it’s an especially sweet viewing experience.
Legacy has bundled a few bonus features into the disc, including a 5.1 Surround Sound audio track, a few bonus performances, and a surprisingly in-depth documentary, “The Music Is the Message,” which collects new interviews detailing the label’s glory years and the preparation for the 2008 concert. It reveals the lengths the parties involved were willing to go to in order to make sure these classic songs were given the treatment they deserved, and it provides a solidly entertaining bookend to the first year of Sony’s PIR restoration campaign.