Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth
Sunday 6th April 2014
See also my Toppermost article on Martha Reeves and The Vandellas (LINK HERE).
It’s funny going to a 60s Soul Show in your home town, where most of the audience are probably contemporaries who attended discos while the original songs were still new. Probably these were girls you had wanted to dance with, maybe blokes you were a bit scared of. Now it’s yellow teeth, flabby stomachs, big bottoms, bald patches and grey stubble. But enough about me, I’ll drag myself away from the unforgiving mirror and get on with the review:
Knock On Wood
Baby Now That I’ve Found You
(Love Alone Sweetheart)?
Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now
You Make Me Feel Brand New / Let’s Stay Together (medley)
My First, My Last, My Everything
Just My Imagination
Build Me Up Buttercup
BAND: Drums, bass guitar, guitar, saxophone, two keyboards (one doing synth horns)
These 60s soul groups are like a jar of Japanese pickles or a vat of port. They’re never actually emptied but diluted on a regular basis by adding new vegetables or wine or personnel so some element of the original is there. Clem Curtis and Colin Young sang on their first two biggest hits, and the band ceased in 1970. Most of the hits were co-written by Tony Macaulay, and hailed by some as the British effort at emulating (or imitating) Motown, and the band was proto-Two Tone, not that there’s any Two-Tone sound, just a mixed race band, like The Equals or Hot Chocolate. Tony Macaulay has the knack of catchy, but to me often irritatingly catchy songs. On one hand you have his co-writes for The Foundations, Baby Now That I’ve Found You (UK #1), Build Me Up Buttercup, (UK#2) Any Old Time You’re Sad and Lonely (UK #48), In The Bad Old Days (UK#8). But then you have his stuff for Pickettywitch, Edison Lighthouse, David Soul and Paper Dolls. Or Scott Walker, Long John Baldry and The Hollies. His signature is an insistent persistence. Maybe that’s why I prefer the somewhat lesser hits like Back On My Feet Again and In The Bad Old Days to that #1 and #2.
Recently there have been two bands going out as The Foundations. One is led by original guitarist Alan Warner, the only founding Foundation in it. Hue Montgomery is the lead vocalist. The other is Clem Curtis & The Foundations, featuring the original lead vocalist, who left in 1967. So I had no idea which band we were to see.
The opening number was an instrumental, led by the female sax player and it looked clear to me that none of these Foundations were born by 1967, and the guitarist was Afro-Caribbean, so not Alan Warner. Clem Curtis was introduced after the opening number and went into Knock On Wood then their greatest hit Baby Now That I’ve Found You with instant audience participation. He has a powerful but relaxed delivery, great personality and stage chat. He announced he was 74, and later that he has 17 grandchildren, 6 great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild. He looks 15 to 20 years younger and never got out of puff either.
The issue is that he left the band in 1967 after their third single, but before Build Me Up Buttercup. So what we got was a set of cover versions of major 70s soul hits. They were done very well. The drummer shared lead on Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, and the bass guitarist took the lead on Wonderful World. An excellent soul covers band, good volume, not too loud (though the snare was amplified and monotonous). They went down an absolute storm, and the Temptations cover Just My Imagination was the standout, with a move into semi-reggae during the sax solo. Clem Curtis does great Temptations … My Girl was their version. And good soft seventies stuff like Lionel Richie’s Easy.
By this time, I was wondering if someone would call out, ‘Do you know anything by The Foundations?’ He did do Build Me Up Buttercup as the closer, then Superstition as the encore. The entire audience were on their feet and dancing. But as a show by “The Foundations” it was sorely lacking in Foundations hits.
Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
I’m Ready For Love
Come & Get These Memories
Nowhere To Run
Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)
I Want You Back
No One There
Third Finger, Left Hand
Power of Love
Dancing In The Street
Medley: I Can’t Help Myself / Signed, Sealed, Delivered
BAND: drums (also Musical Director) / bass guitar / guitar / electric piano / baritone sax / tenor sax / trombone / trumpet
I spent some time in preparation for this show by doing the Toppermost article on Martha Reeves. She is still there, so undiluted, and The Vandellas were always a changeable support. The classic originals were Rosalind Ashford and Anette Beard. As with so many girl groups, the backing vocalists, however good, are essentially replaceable. On some records it was the Andantes, on solo work in the 70s, similar backing was Clydie King & Friends, and the current Vandellas have been there a long time and are now her sisters, Lois and Delphine. One with her since 1968, the other since 1980.
I also listened to the Motortown Revue album from forty … no FIFTY … years ago, which had the Motown session guys out and working. James Jamerson’s bass guitar riffs underpinned her records and continued into her post-Motown career. While Jamerson is one of the great bassists, his riffs are not impossible to play but require feel and sound. The big question before the show is whether the backing band will be up to the job?
First problem is rule one for headliners: Never, never let the support band play louder than you. You’ll sound tame. And they did after The Foundations, who as I said were pretty quiet anyway. This band were very quiet indeed. Maybe they wanted them at 1964 amplification levels, and Van Morrison always goes for quiet in this hall, but this was quieter … the drummer was barely tapping the drums. The guitar was inaudible 90% of the time. The bass was a lot quieter than on any Martha Reeves record. They were also right back on the back wall of the stage … normally when you take the support band gear off in the interval, you move forward into the space, but no, guitar, drums and bass were pasted to the back wall.
The other issue is that everyone was reading music. The bass guitarist, who was good, managed to leave the music stand in Nowhere To Run, Heatwave and Dancing In The Street and indeed, at least two of those you should know anyway. The four piece horn section was quiet and reading too. I assume that because they COULD pick up and read, they were all good, but they didn’t sound rehearsed, at all “tight” nor particularly committed… the bassist was getting into it most, but it is all great bass material.
I was central, row O. Ideal for sound. The first number, I’m Ready For Love was dire. Both Vandellas were way louder than Martha Reeves, the band a background murmur and it sounded appalling. Fortunately the sound guy got a handle on the vocals quickly and they improved steadily. Quicksand was also ragged, and I was beginning to think, ‘Oh, dear! Disaster!’ The band were still sounding flaccid. Martha Reeves does great audience interaction, but she was also sounding pretty breathless after just two songs. It didn’t pick up for Honey Chile and in spite of good intro, Come & Get These Memories just didn’t hang together properly. At this point two people near me who’d being going wild in The Foundations, got up and left. In the next thirty minutes, I’d guess a dozen more left within my vision area.
That’s a pity because they finally found the groove on Nowhere To Run – I noticed the bass player moved away from the music and just played, and that really helps. The vocals were now meshing well, and Martha’s voice had warmed up and was gaining in power. Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things) was at the edge of familiarity, but the slower pace and more measured delivery worked better. There was a short I Want You Back which was a 1972 B-side for them, making The Jackson 5 song adult.
I thought they hit cruising altitude on Jimmy Mack, first such a good song, but also less frenetic. Excellent. Then the Johnny Bristol song, No One There comes from their final Motown album Black Magic from 1972. It was a beautiful rendition of a truly lovely song, starting with just piano, then piano plus bass before the band eased in.
They kept the pace down with one of their many great B-sides, Third Finger Left Hand, the B-side of Jimmy Mack.
The final trio of songs couldn’t go wrong: Power of Love was from her 1974 MCA album, though why she kept saying this Joe Simon song was “a blues” escaped me. Heatwave next, and then she gave a long list of people who had covered the final song, starting with Mick Jagger and running via Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield to The Grateful Dead: Dancing In The Street which finally pulled the audience to their feet. She had kept exhorting the audience to get up and dance, but she needed the band 25-30% louder to make that work, though Clem Curtis had had no trouble- it was spontaneous with him. The encore was a brief reprise of Dancing In The Street then a Motown Medley, beginning with I Can’t Help Myself plus a lot of Signed, Sealed, Delivered – there were other things in there very briefly.
She was great, her voice was great. The set list was well chosen, with the essential four biggies all there, plus some lesser-known stuff, but as she proudly said, everything was stuff they had recorded. The only one missing for me was Forget Me Not, a B-side that got reissued in Britain only as an A-side and got to #11 … so in fact their second biggest UK hit (but not of course their second best-known song). Anyway, it’s a personal favorite.
The band unfortunately were feeble-sounding, and The Foundations had worked the audience better with a louder, tighter and more exuberant set. A huge surprise to me. But because those Martha and Vandella songs are pop classics, repeated in films, often covered, iconic songs, it is easy to overlook the fact that the two Foundations songs Clem Curtis did were bigger UK hits … #1 and #2, and also that some of the audience may have come for The Foundations, though I would say they’re a footnote in rock history.