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the sound of young america.
the golden age of rock and roll.
One: Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson are part of one of those traveling “Motown Revue” type things (this one aptly named “Motown Gold”) that usually end up in third-level casinos or state fairs. The New York City equivalent is the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island, which turns out to be a concrete slab adjacent to the boardwalk that happens to have a stage at one end of it. There is zero ambiance, except if you count the ocean and the beach. I bought a front-row ticket because it was there and it wasn’t expensive, and I suspected that my tolerance for drunk chatty people would be tested at a show like this.
Martha Reeves comes out with two backing singers…and the sound doesn’t work. The PA system is literally not functioning. Martha Reeves is singing “Heatwave” and I cannot hear her. She can’t hear herself. She is trying to keep to the schedule and tell someone, anyone, that the sound is fucked. This is starting to feel a little bit like the stories I heard from older friends who had seen Elvis towards the end, they went out of curiosity or their parents dragged them, and while there was some level of pride that 10 years later they could say they saw Elvis Presley, they kind of wish they hadn’t, because he was old and fat and couldn’t sing and what he could sing he didn’t sing well.
The production values for this evening are not, shall we say, at their very highest. The band is bad. If you’ve ever been to Vegas and went to the old Casino Royale, you’ll remember that their shtick was that they had celebrity impersonators as dealers. The quality of the impersonation went up as the day went on; if you went in the afternoon, you were getting the very low rent Marilyn Monroe or Prince. It’s clear that the way this entire outing has any economy of scale is that is that it is the same band all night, just the singers switch out. Two keyboard players, a drummer, horns, someone on assorted percussion. As needed there are some auxiliary background singers. My notes read, “Is anyone in this band any good?”
Martha regretfully has zero range. It is wince-inducing awful. But she still has the moves and her backup singers execute the routine precisely. One of them, her cousin, has been with her since the early days. But the crowd doesn’t care very much; they’re here to sing along and hug their friends. “Nowhere To Run” and “Jimmy Mack” are a good time. People are here to remember their youth, while I’m trying to fill in the gaps in my imagination.
But then, here it is: “Dancing In The Street,” and there is stardust, just for a moment, the dust shimmered in the lights and it was not now, but then. A moment of hearing that song being sung by that person, the first time and the second time and now. It will exist after Martha leaves us. She curtseys at the end, dipping her leg behind her as she was likely taught by Maxine Powell back on W. Grand Boulevard. It was ancient, though; it was ancient, it was as old as I was.
Two: Diana Ross
Ms. Ross is playing the Mann Center in Philadelphia. The Mann is an ancient, 70’s-relic shed, built for symphonies and your middle-of-the-road entertainers of the day, like Streisand and Cher and probably Bette Midler. There is a covered seated area, and then a lawn that extends up the hill. This performance is not sold out.
To get to the Mann, one drives, or one takes the dedicated shuttle from Center City. You picnic or have a snack beforehand; there is nothing really nearby. It is in a neighborhood that has seen better days, and may well see them again (but only by pushing out the existing residents most likely). I ask the usher if she knows what time the show will end, and she informs me 9:30. This will include a set by one of Diana’s daughters to warm up the crowd.
I am here because I have spent this summer writing about Diana and the Supremes for an upcoming anthology, and I have, somehow, never seen Diana Ross perform live and in person, despite knowing all the songs. I have been immersed. I have become obsessed. I am retroactively defensive of people who mocked her for demanding the “Ms. Ross” honorific. I watched Mahogany via YouTube bootleg.
The audience tonight are groups of African-American aunties out with their friends, and groups of gay men in the boxes down front. Everyone is dancing; everyone is excited; everyone knows all the words to all the songs. Freely, I am here for the hits. I want “Come See About Me” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Love Child.” The disco hits are fun. Diana changes clothes three times, and is suitably attired, evening gowns and boas and all the sparkle and glitter one would expect and frankly demand. I am delighted to get “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” because my mother loved that song and it is like a portal has opened and she is sitting next to me. But “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is deeply profound; it opens up a small door in my heart and the summer air rushes in. Diana still loves performing; she still loves singing in front of an audience; she loves the attention she gets from the boys down front.
On the shuttle bus after the show, a quartet of sparkly boys are imitating Diana’s little shoulder shrug/eye roll with perfect precision. Everyone laughs.
Three: Darlene Love
I have seen Darlene a few times, but decide that I should see her again, because she is doing a holiday show down the shore in Red Bank at the theater known as “The Basie” by locals and by those who follow the artists from that particular area of New Jersey. The orchestra is packed--it might have actually sold out--and yet I am somehow the youngest person in my immediate vicinity, if not the entire theater. Darlene is still in phenomenal voice, and her band is talented and enthusiastic, but I still find myself wishing she had one with more horsepower.
Admittedly I made some assumptions about what this show would be, and was initially concerned that it would be a focus on more recent material as the pre-show video footage seemed to incline in that direction. But no, we got the Phil Spector Christmas Album songs, and the other hits; she did a Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrell medley; and after 45 minutes, there was an intermission. When we returned, her backing singers sang some holiday classics, and I was, admittedly, getting a tiny bit peeved, because I had to get the 10:30pm train back or I was getting the 11:45pm train back and did not want to sit in some bar near the train station waiting it out. But then I double-checked Darlene’s age via Wikipedia and realized she was somehow SEVENTY SEVEN, and I retracted my objections
When she returned (with a costume change), we got a gorgeously poignant “He’s a Rebel” and of course, of course, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” which I did not expect to give me all the feelings that it did, the fact that it sounds like forever, the fact that it has a million memories tied to it. I watched her every year on David Letterman and I rooted for her always because she was Darlene Love, for goodness’ sake. But she sang with such strength and power this evening and it was a tremendous performance by anyone’s standards.
The next song was a reprise of a track Little Steven wrote for her, and I assumed that we were done and this was how the band were going to vamp off the stage, so I ran out to the bathroom and was standing in the lobby watching the closed circuit--I had to walk out of the theater by 10:15 to get my train--when I heard a series of descending chords and promptly ran back into the theater, and strode down to the front.
No, it’s not Darlene’s song by the strict definition of the word, but it is a Phil Spector creation, which, given her history with the man, puts it squarely in her bailiwick by entitlement. And, to be fair, Tina is not singing it any more. But there is a reason no one else sings “River Deep, Mountain High” because it is an impossible song to perform. it is the rock and roll version of, I dunno, “Nessum Dorma.” No one’s going to do it because they don’t want to embarrass themselves by being unable to execute it flawlessly.
And yet, 77 year old Darlene Love is up there and she is on point. She is dialed in. She is singing this song perfectly, every modulation, every nuance, every ascent and descent. The band behind her suddenly seems larger and bigger, somehow creating that Wall of Sound to buoy her up, they are rising to the challenge, they would not let her down on this.
When she sang that last “Baby baby baby….” and the band played those initial descending bars to close the song, and she literally arm pumped with joy, the look of sheer triumph on her face was beautiful and astounding and sad and heartbreaking all rolled up into one. There is a reason this woman is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (okay, there is a reason that Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt dogged this woman in the 70s and campaigned for her to get into the HOF in the 00s). We usually use “legend” to imply past tense; tonight, Darlene Love was very much here and now, and very much a legend.
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