Ernie Isley's appearance at Farm Aid was a coup on two fronts: Not only was he the only current St. Louis resident to take the stage, he was the only African-American to headline a set. Indeed, Isley was the only marquee name at the festival that can't be shoe-horned in the broad country-folk-roots category: He's a first-class rock & roll guitarist from a family known for soul, funk and smooth R&B.
These days Ernie is the last man standing from the legendary Isley Brothers (lead singer Ronald is nearing the end of the three-year prison term for tax evasion), and the Farm Aid set provided the biggest stage for Ernie's musical reinvention from sideman to lead singer. Backed by the three-member Jam Band (comprised of local musicians), he opened with "Rising from the Ashes" from his 1990 solo record High Wire, displaying the creamy and urgent guitar tone that helped define the Isley sound. Even with a short set -- early performers' set lengths seemed to average about 15 minutes -- Ernie brought out his bag of tricks, playing the guitar behind his back and plucking the strings with his teeth to the delight of the small but enthusiastic crowd gathered in the first few rows.
As a singer, he doesn't quite relish every note like his older brother Ron, but he performed the '70s soul classic "That Lady" with plenty of soul. The set ended with what Isley termed a "Sunday song," the gospel-groove "Shout." The song was the Isley Brothers first big hit, recorded long before youngest brother Ernie joined the band, but on Sunday it was both a recognition of the family's place in rock & roll history and, as always, a great party starter. Isley even tossed in an instrumental snippet of "Amazing Grace," a moment of true grace for those of us who skipped church to come to Farm Aid.
1. "Rising from the Ashes" 2. "That Lady" 3. "Shout" / "Amazing Grace"