The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Drifters & The Three Degrees @ NIA, Birmingham, 15th March 2010

The Temptations NIA by Karen Strunks 03

NIA audiences must have learnt their lessons during the last year, as there is hardly an empty seat when the lights go down at 7:30.  No fear of turning up half way through the set, that had infuriated many a gig-goer recently, who had not believed the times on their ticket.

Three Degrees NIA by Karen Strunks 01

And what a treat awaits the loyal crowd as three shining rubies glide onto the stage.  The Three Degrees look stunning in long flowing luminous red dresses that shine incandescently.  Vocally there is little to distinguish between this and my memories of their recorded versions.  True there is the question over which Three Degrees are present as the line-up has constantly altered during its lifetime; Valerie Holiday I remember from the mid-70’s when Sheila Ferguson sang lead, Helen Scott, less so and Cynthia Garrison who only joined in 1989, not at all.  But as with all the groups playing tonight, that is not a point of real contention.  The single important factor being, do they uphold the spirit of the band?  When you hear fine versions of “Dirty Ol’ Man”, “Take Good Care of Yourself”, “Woman in Love” and the timeless “When Will I See You Again”, you forgive that your favourite Degree may not be present.

Three Degrees NIA by Karen Strunks 04Four Tops NIA by Karen Strunks

Following a short break, four very young looking The Drifters take the stage and treat us to a thirty minute set of songs new and old.  Although these four men are clearly gifted singers, this really did feel like a tribute act.  They are granted the official title of The Drifters by a legal court case won by the daughter of the original Drifter’s manager George Treadwell, not because they have any original members.  The illusion is also tainted by a backing band (the same that supported the Three Degrees), who appear to be technically capable whilst simultaneously lacking soul – a key ingredient here I would argue.  They play through the songs adequately enough and it is great to hear “Come On Over to My Place” and “You’re More than a Number in My Little Red Book” live, but there is a lack of real sparkle.  The vocals are great, no question, but with the plodding instrumentation, it is only with their last two songs “Saturday Night at the Movies” and “Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies” where the arena is fully convinced and they rise to their feet en masse.

Luckily following another break in which the backing band is replaced and augmented by a ten piece horn section, we are treated to the highlights of the night; first The Four Tops and then The Temptations.

I have to say at this point that I have loved the music of 60’s Motown for 25 years, so it is a real honour to see these two bands live.  True, both groups only have one original member in their line-ups, but time takes its toll on everybody.  What is clear however, is that the members who are no longer with us are remembered during every note played:  when Lawrence Payton’s son Roquel sings his solo (Vandross’ “Dance With My Father”), he clearly indicates where on the stage his father, Levi and Obie would be standing.  It is an honest moment and is truly touching.

Four Tops NIA by Karen Strunks

It is not a night of sadness though, on the contrary, The Four Tops have come to party.. .and what a soundtrack! “Walk Away Renée” (a beautifully slowed down version), “Bernadette”, “Standing in the Shadows of Love”, “Baby I Need Your Loving”, “Same Old Song”, “When She Was My Girl”, they even began the set with “Loco in Acapulco”, which I admit for me didn’t bode well, as I thought for one horrible moment they might only sing material from the 80’s onwards… but thankfully no, and even the upgraded band are more capable of achieving that Motown vibe.  It is awesome.  They end the set with “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, and it is a stroke of genius.  The audience are in a frenzy and Roquel even manages to have a bra presented to him by an adoring fan.

After another band change (that is only the rhythm section), The Temptations bounce on stage and launch into 40 minutes of stunning songs and unrivalled showmanship.  Their dance moves and harmonies are faultless.  I always thought that The Temptations had the better songs and hearing them altogether tonight, makes this glaringly obvious: “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, “Ball of Confusion”, “I Wish It Would Rain”, “Just My Imagination”, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, “Can’t Get Next To You”, “Get Ready”, “Treat Her Like A Lady”, “My Girl” and “The Way You Do The Things You Do”.  They were blessed with great songwriters and producers during their recording career, but I doubt that there are better performers capable of carrying these songs off in the world today.  Even with just one original member (Otis Williams), the four remaining new members not only capture the sound, but the feel as well.  All dressed in matching lilac suits with matching shoes, they look every inch Temptations.  Vocally, the voices blend beautifully, from deep bass up through to soaring falsetto it is without question the clearest sound of the four groups (although will the NIA ever manage to get the bass drum sound controlled?  It reverberated off the back wall muddying the lower end of the mix the whole night… next time please play at the Symphony Hall!).

The Temptations NIA by Karen Strunks 03

It is a shame The Temptations don’t try to recreate any of the duets from their album with The Supremes, as this is a classic and a personal favourite, but I sadly cannot see Diana or Mary or Cindy, being up for it, despite the clear strength of support for this music shown by the Birmingham audience tonight.  I have to admit I wondered whether the NIA was too large a venue for music that’s popularity in the mainstream has dwindled over the last two decades, but far from it; these groups still have incredible pulling power.

Four Tops NIA by Karen Strunks

There will be some naysayers that will argue that groups with so few original members are closer to tribute bands than the real thing, however, after tonight’s experience I can honestly say that even when the Duke and Otis retire, The Four Tops and The Temptations will still overflow with soul and captivate audiences for another 50 years.  I am certain the members of the groups that have passed away, are all nodding approvingly with the rest of us.

Review – Alan Neilson
Photos – Karen Strunks

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