Got a nice Christmas present recently, in the form of a concert.
Jeanne didn’t pitch the tickets to “A Motown Christmas” as a Yuletide gift, but it was one — the gift of (mostly) the music of my teen- and young-adulthood. More of the music was the hits of that era, than Christmas songs, but I’m not going to complain.
The outfit staging the show at Eau Claire’s Pablo Center is called The Motortown All-Stars, a four-man ensemble of singers fronting a band consisting of a couple instrumentalists with ties to big-name jazz and R&B groups, and other professional musicians. The singers also had ties to well-known groups — although I’ll address that aspect later on — as well as the attire, moves and voices (mostly) that helped make Motown music.
The act hewed to the holiday theme by performing some pop, rock and R&B Christmas chestnuts — “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” for instance — and some Yuletide classics in soul or R&B styles. They also cleverly took some of the lyrics of Motown classics, combined them with holiday music, rendering them Christmas style.
But most of the songs performed were Motown standards, mostly grouped into sets by the most popular acts: the Miracles, Temptations, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, Four Tops, etc. There was also a set of songs from the ladies of Motown: Martha and the Vandellas, Fontella Bass, Diana Ross and the Supremes, maybe one or two others. And a few stand-alone offerings, some virtual One Hit Wonders, like the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk.”
The backing band was talented and pretty tight — the latter quality being impressive, considering that the bassist had just joined the group (and didn’t look old enough to drink). Two of them had experience with well-known groups — the trumpet player having played for jazz great Maynard Ferguson, and the keyboardist/music director had been associated with (I think) the reformed Capitols.
The songs were mostly done well and faithfully, although some of the vocalists handled their parts better than others. But the important thing were the songs — listening to them, and the audience response, you realized why Motown was so popular, and powerful.
A lot of that power, and popularity, came from the lyrics, although the production and composing also were factors. Most of the lyrics were written by a relative handful of (mostly) men: chief among them, Ashford and Simpson, Marvin Gaye, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield.
Those lyrics and the songs they populated were mostly marvels of simplicity: three minutes or so, a couple verses, a chorus and a refrain; the topics mostly being love (often unrequited) and romance. But there were often these exquisite touches, like that line in the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown”: “Just like Pagliacci did/I try to keep my surface hid.”
I did have a few quibbles. Three of the vocalists are described as coming from big-name acts, including the Miracles and Temptations, but the touring company doesn’t have a website, and their Facebook page doesn’t give the names of the front men.
We bought a photo of them, and had it autographed, but I can’t make out the names from the handwriting. I think they may have been members of reunited/reconstituted versions of the original acts.
The fourth was billed as “Motown royalty,” as the godson of Martha Reeves (of the Vandellas); he looked young enough that his grandpa would be a contemporary of the original Motown stars. And what appeared to be the oldest of the four wasn’t as vocally strong as the other three, and was having trouble keeping up with the choreography.
But those are just quibbles, not complaints. It was a couple hours of some of the best music America has produced, with just enough Christmas to make the holiday bright.