Martha & The Vandellas – London Bloomsbury Ballroom 20/12/08

Martha & The Vandellas

There’s always a danger with elder acts that any attempts to embrace modernity will come off as a desperate grasp for relevance, and any attempts to simply stick, steadfast, to what they know best will be interpreted as aligning oneself with dying breeds. Think of Tom Jones collaborating with Wyclef Jean. Think of Cliff Richard continuing to shamelessly canvassing for Christianity. But ah, Motown! That’s different! Surely nothing can derail the charm, the sass, the repressed sexual undertones?

Indeed, as far as showstoppers go, the undiluted stiffness of Martha & The Vandellas is a top draw, and Reeves and her sisters happily carry every single trait present at their inception. Rightly, no effort has been made to update, to forcibly include contemporary elements into their act. Elegant yet aggressive, the three of them perform the requisite hand gestures and flourishes with an air of authentic tribute, the handkerchiefs on their wrists worn like war-wives’ continuing hope of a man’s return. When the inevitable Jimmy Mack is introduced, Martha shambles (quite hilariously) into giving the impression she’s waited 40 years for the titular beau. Far from trivialising the sentiments of the song, the impassioned delivery by the group polarises the initial humour, making all the more potent as a dramatic piece.

As with disco, the best performers of Motown music effectively create a true drama out of what might be seen as excessive camp, unnecessary emotion or vulnerability. All the Vandellas songs have such a brazen, simple heart that when the three of them harmonise (with remarkable accuracy) with eyebrows arched in exertion the projected drama is palpable throughout the Ballroom. The Vandellas’ ability to sustain this dramatic interest was the initial key to their success, and they appear, with age, to have maximised its potential to remain an engaging live presence.

While there’s the occasional mis-step into that Tom Jones territory with slightly funkier new material, in the main tonight is a tremendously classy, well-judged affair. The turn-out is surprisingly small (there were a lot of names on the guest-list and very little advertising), but it all makes for a privileged feel among the guests. An introduction to another inevitable song, Dancing In The Street, sees Martha assert herself as a proud original, lambasting the likes of David Bowie and Mick Jagger (Youtube their version and cry dying) and even Cilla Black for inferior interpretations before launching into the most spirited performance of the evening. Whether it’s confusing, retro authenticity or just a good night out, what lasts longest in the memory is the verve, the expression and intimation of vulnerable but strong women, still dramatising after all these years.

See this review also HERE!

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