fri 20/09/2019

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Dingwalls review - What's going on? Good question | reviews, news & interviews

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Dingwalls review - What's going on? Good question

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, Dingwalls review - What's going on? Good question

Not so much dancing in the street - more sinking in the quicksand

Ruining their iconic song: Martha Reeves and The VandellasMonica Morgan

There’s something truly sad and dispiriting about listening to an artist trash their back catalogue and absolutely totally ruin their greatest song, especially when that song has acquired anthemic status and been chosen to be preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry. Bob Dylan does it, of course, but that’s intentional. Martha Reeves clearly doesn’t realise how terrible she sounds and no one has had the courage to tell her. What are sisters for?

Her younger sisters Lois and Delphine, who currently comprise The Vandellas, perhaps have too much of a vested interest to tell the empress that her clothes are now torn and tattered beyond recognition but it would be a kindness. As it was, they ooh-ed and aah-ed valiantly behind Martha, whose vibrato is now as wide as the Atlantic. The band was great, too – “The best musicians in the world. They make it sound like the music we recorded all those years ago,” she said optimistically, after she’d rent a few ear drums with “Heatwave”.

Ms Reeves told the audience that she’d recently turned 78 and this tour, which closed last night at Dingwalls, has been a celebration. The audience cheered – this was early on – but well before the end of the show people at the bar end of venue were chatting loudly amongst themselves and no one seemed to care. A few left early. You couldn’t blame them. Marvin Gaye must have spun in his grave at her version of “What’s Going On?” Good question! He would have appreciated the sax and keyboard solos though.

The show began with “Holy Highway”, which she described as “a new song”, though it seems to have been in her repertoire for a few years. Just not since 1962, I guess. When she spoke afterwards, telling the audience that she’d come “all the way from Detroit, Michigan to Camden, London to celebrate my birthday” she sounded puffed already. The evening, she promised, would be “a walk down memory lane” – and it certainly was for her, as she revealed that Dingwalls was one of the first places she played. “I had my first Guinness here!”

The sound was poorly mixed, making Reeves’ voice sound even more raucous, and much of the gabbling between songs was hard to catch. She talked a little about Motown and the great Berry Gordy, and of course about Gaye, and said (a propos of what I’m not sure) that she has “a houseful of teddy bears”.

The 90-minute set included “Nowhere to Hide”, “Jimmy Mack”, “Natural Woman” and “Respect”. That greatest of hits, “Dancing in the Street”, was a half-spoken travesty. “Won’t you help me?” she implored the audience at one point. A major transatlantic hit, it was also a minor hit for The Mamas and The Papas, Cass Elliot taking the solo of course, and, famously, for Mick Jagger and David Bowie as part of the Live Aid fundraising effort. But it’s the Martha and the Vandella’s version that we remember, her once-distinctive voice a siren call to youth across America, black and white, one of the great songs of the 1960s: Calling out around the world/ Are you ready for a brand new beat?/ Summer's here and the time is right/ For dancing in the street.

It’s exhilarating, and that sudden key change on the words “Oh, it doesn’t matter what you wear” instantly ramps up the excitement. But the Dingwalls version only made you want to cry.

It’s 60 years this year since Berry Gordy founded Motown, A renaissance man who could write the songs, produce the records and handle the marketing and promotion, he wrote such hits as “Lonely Teardrops” for Jackie Wilson, “Shop Around” for The Miracles (Smokey Robinson was the co-writer) and “Do You Love Me” for The Contours, a hit song in both the 1960s and the 1980s. He signed a roster of legendary acts, among them The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 and, as Brian Epstein would shortly do with The Beatles, he carefully shaped their public image.

Martha Reeves and The Vandellas were signed by Gordy in 1962 and in the next decade enjoyed 26 hits. Their songs were a soundtrack to so many lives, preserved forever on the mental jukebox. Best keep it that way.

Liz Thomson's website

Their songs were a soundtrack to so many lives, preserved forever on the mental jukebox. Best keep it that way

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