Tuesday, 29 April 2014


Cal Gill, The Velvelettes
It’s a year shy of 50 years since Berry Gordy sent the cream of his empire to the UK for the Tamla-Motown Revue:  The Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Stevie Wonder and the Earl Van Dyke Six. The Tamla Motown Revue of 2014 for the second night at Modstock – a four night affair in Central London organised by the New Untouchables - is more modestly scaled but the acts flown in are still greeted by an excited appreciation society including some of those fortunate enough to witness the original tour.

Brenda Holloway, favourite female Motown artist for many (count me in), enters with ‘Just Look What You’ve Done’, looking every inch the glamorous star. Not bad for a grandmother to seventeen and she mixes class with straight-talking street-funk. "I'm gonna have a collection for new bra," she announces. "This one ain't working," she adds, hoicking her ample bosom back inside her dress. The elegance and sophistication in her singing voice though is evident during ‘When I’m Gone’, ‘Operator’ and her classic ballad ‘Every Little Bit Hurts’, but it’s the up-tempo pairing of ‘Reconsider’ and ‘Crying Time’ which shine brightest. The only disappointment is the shortness of the set which ends after ‘You’ve Made Me So Very Happy’. Given the limited opportunities to see Brenda a few more songs (including ‘Starting The Hurt All Over Again’ which was sorely missed) would’ve been welcome. Keep them wanting more? She did that.

Like Brenda, The Velvelettes were never high on Motown’s pecking order with only six releases to their name. But with producer Norman Whitfield, itching to prove himself to gain access to the Temptations, they cut some of the label’s most enduring 45s; spanning the decades ever since in youth clubs, Mod clubs, scooter rallies and soul nights.

“We are the original, the only Velvelettes!” they proudly announce and they’re not kidding. With wonderful synchronicity with an event marking fifty years of Mod culture, the four family members who cut ‘He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’’ – Cal Gill, Millie Gill, Bertha Barbee and Norma Barbee – are all here opening their set with that song they recorded in 1964.     

One common problem with seeing Motown acts is the backing band rarely does justice to the sound of the original records. With the best will in the world, how does anyone recreate the depth and feeling of the Funk Brothers in the Snake Pit? Despite the efforts of Mick Talbot and company they sound a little sparse and plinky-plonky which puts greater emphasis on the vocals. Fortunately lead singer Cal Gill is impressively up to the task and keeps in firm control as the group add harmonies and gentle loose choreography.

‘Lonely, Lonely Girl Am I’ and ‘A Bird In The Hand’ are full of exuberance, the sassy ladies shaking and shimmying in glittering gold, whilst ‘I’m So Glad It’s Twilight Time’ and a lovely reading of ‘Everybody Needs Love’ drop the pace. 'Boy From Crosstown' gets an airing;‘These Things Will Keep Me Loving You’ is a guaranteed winner; ‘Nowhere To Run’ fuels the growing party atmosphere but the best moment is the addition of a spine-tingling gospel style intro to launch ‘Needle In A Haystack’. For a track often unfairly derided due to over familiarity and, for folk of a certain standing, thoughts of grass skirt wearing scooterboys on cut-down Lambrettas pouring snakebite over their heads, few resist the urge to “do-lang, do-lang” in joyful unison.

For the finale Brenda Holloway returns and takes the lead on a barnstorming ‘I’ll Keep On Holding On’, the perfect Motown/Mod crossover thanks to versions by the Marvelettes and the Action, and an ideal choice to close a night celebrating the entwined pillars of everlasting music and style.

A version of this review also appears as part of a fuller Modstock review for Shindig! Magazine.
See also My Life Has Been Beautiful: The Brenda Holloway Interview