Main stage spotlight

The Baltimore Sun

It's difficult to wander through Artscape and not find something thrilling. The city's annual street festival along Mount Royal Avenue is an abundant arts buffet vibrant with theatrical performances, lively poetry readings and hip fashion shows.

But the diverse musical lineup on the main stage is perhaps Artscape's biggest draw. Past festivals have featured memorable shows by such pop-soul legends as Al Green, Chaka Khan and Isaac Hayes. Throughout its 26 years, Artscape also has spotlighted burgeoning acts of various styles, especially from the underground club and soul scenes. Recent on-the-verge artists who have enlivened the main stage include eclectic singer-songwriters Donnie and Goapele. Here's a nice mix of this year's main stage acts.

The Isley Brothers (8:30 p.m. tomorrow) --Still throwing down after more than 50 years in the business, the Isley Brothers have influenced the sounds of everyone from the Beatles to the Neptunes. The band's gospel-suffused rock beginnings (best distilled in 1959's "Shout") gave way to blistering funk in the late '60s, eventually coalescing into sleek, sexy urbane soul. During the Isleys' artistic peak between 1969 and 1977, the Ohio sextet released a slew of classics, including "It's Your Thing," "Summer Breeze," "Fight the Power," "For the Love of You" and "Footsteps in the Dark" -- songs that have been endlessly sampled and referenced over the years in hip-hop and TV commercials.

These days, the band includes the still-honeyed vocals of Ron, who for the past decade has also been known as Mr. Biggs, the extravagant, gangsta-like character created by R. Kelly, the band's current producer. Ernie, the youngest Isley, still performs blazing, Jimi Hendrix-like wizardry on the guitar. The group's latest albums -- 2003's Body Kiss and last year's Baby Makin' Music -- don't compare with its evergreen hits of yesteryear. But amazingly after all these years and numerous pop fads, the Isley Brothers still sound fresh and remain commercially viable while many of their peers have long fallen off.

Lupe Fiasco (6:30 p.m. Saturday) --This Chicago rapper was one of the most-talked-about newcomers of last year. Backed by fluid throwback production, the artist's wordy narratives, whose subjects center on everything from skateboarding to ponderous spiritual matters, made Food & Liquor one of 2006's better rap albums. It was an impressive debut by the Muslim-raised rapper, who eschews the thug cliches that have long dominated hip-hop. His style, mixing elements of Nas and De La Soul, is often compelling and refreshing.

Keyshia Cole (8:30 p.m. Saturday) --With her emotionally raw lyrics, pain-in-my-heart vocals and hip-hop-derived swagger, Cole recalls the early, thugged-out Mary J. Blige. Like the older artist, the Oakland, Calf.-raised singer-songwriter has a hard-knock back story, which was chronicled last year on the BET reality show, Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is.

Named after her 2005 platinum-selling debut, the TV program detailed her beginnings from a child abandoned by a drug-addicted mother to her sudden rise to R&B; stardom. Cole's songs mostly center on the uglier, rougher side of romantic love. And, like Blige, she brings such lyrics to life with an attractively hoarse, slightly flawed voice whose soulful essence you feel.

Ryan Shaw (4:30 p.m. Sunday) --Think of him as a black male version of Joss Stone: a twentysomething singer whose music self-consciously recycles elements of soul's golden '60s era. The Georgia artist boasts a gritty, sweaty vocal approach, evoking the styles of such soul stalwarts as Bobby Womack and Wilson Pickett. This is Ryan Shaw, the artist's debut released in April by Columbia Records, is a mix of covers and originals. Though the album is spotty, Shaw's vocals are mature and sometimes moving. With the right material, this guy will fly.

Burning Spear (6:30 p.m. Sunday) --One of the most respected and revered artists in reggae, the artist born Winston Rodney has been singing searingly brilliant songs of political revolution and spiritual evolution since the early '70s.

His music braids together his Rastafarian beliefs and Marcus Garvey's philosophical teachings. The titles of such early songs as "Ethiopians Live It Out" and "We Are Free" speak to the artist's recurring theme of transcending political and spiritual oppression. It's righteous music laden with nuggets of African history. It's rich music that expands your mind as it moves your body.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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