Thursday, 19 November 2009
MOTOWN REVUE at HAMMERSMITH APOLLO
I never associate the word “diva” as being a good thing – too many negative connotations - yet someone in their wisdom decided to call last week’s shebang in W6 a “Divas of Motown” night. On my calendar I wrote “Motown Revue” instead. Sounds far more credible.
The set-up was Jack Ashford’s Funk Brothers would play and various guests would come out and do a turn. Like a revue in fact. Ashford is the only original Funk Brother still alive and claims to have appeared on 92 number one singles. I don’t know how he calculated that figure but suffice to say he played on hundreds of Motown releases, shaking his tambourine and plinky plonking his vibes like a good un. From the moment he walked out, tambourine in hand, and said “How you doing?” in his Philadelphian burr, he was coolness personified. He compeered the evening and told a few stories. I doubt he had much to do with putting the band together, but whoever did, did a sterling job. They sounded like a Motown band should. Smokey Robinson take note.
After a run through of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”, first out was Mable John who signed for Berry Gordy a full fifty years ago. You want pedigree? Recorded for Motown, recorded for Stax, and was a Raelette. Now pushing 80, five foot nothing, Ronald McDonald wig hat on her head, she was a revelation. She didn’t cover herself in glory during her last London visit but here she was totally captivating and held the audience in her tiny palm. Fruity as hell and her bluesy voice showed little sign of age. With the band totally in sync she did “Able Mable”, “Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That”, “Running Out” and “Same Time, Same Place”. Only one Motown release (and three Stax) but what the heck. She wasn’t great in a patronising pat-on-the-head-for-the-mad-old-bird way; she was simply great and thoroughly earned her standing ovation. I was thinking then I could’ve gone home happy. Maybe I should have.
Next, the one I wanted to see, my favourite Motown lady, Brenda Holloway. A difficult one this. She was okay and her voice was fine but she was too offputtingly showbiz. After John’s no bullshit presence and attitude, Holloway didn’t come across as sincere (which is probably doing her a disservice) and her dramatic over-egging the pudding was too distracting. With only a five song set it was disappointing to start with something I can only presume was a 70’s (at earliest) track. Then came “When I’m Gone”, “Every Little Bit Hurts”, “Operator” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”. I’m being harsh because if anything she was actually trying too hard when she would have been better off just letting her singing do the work. It’s hard to criticize someone for that and I’d definitely go and see her again if she did a full gig.
Chris Clark’s limitations as a singer were exposed next but her self-deprecating manner (“who’d have thought I’d be the poster child for the 90 year old white woman on the comeback trail?”) was undoubtedly the right card to play. She croaked through “Love’s Gone Bad”, “Do Right Baby Do Right”, “I Want To Go Back There Again” and the Motown song most guaranteed to make my eyes roll round the back of head, “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”.
After a break the Funk Brothers played “What’s Going On”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and “Heatwave” before “The Supremes”. In truth, they were more accurately introduced as “Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence formerly of the Supremes” (like Bruce and Rick “From The Jam”). Anyway, there were three of them and whereas the evening had previously had an air of Motown Connoisseurs about it, all that changed as the assembled office slags who didn’t know what they were watching or listening to screeched with delight at the Friday night karaoke laid on for them. You could find better singers down the Dog and Duck come closing time than these three howling munters. They murdered four or five Diana Ross-era hits (I was knocking back the Red Stripe to dull the pain so can’t remember which ones) before I bolted for the door and legged it to the tube and the sanctuary of my iPod. I didn’t bother staying for Thelma Houston.