The beauty of a package tour like this one is that fans get to hear four famous groups playing the hits we all remember and not much in the way of ‘Here’s one from our new album’. Well, that’s how it works in theory, in practice things don’t run quite so smoothly, but you still can’t beat The Temptations and The Four Tops for an evening of Motown nostalgia and great, great music.
With the Manchester Arena almost full already, the night got off to a great start thanks to The Crystals. One of Phil Spector’s classic girl groups, they may be down to one original member in Dee Dee Kenniebrew, but aren’t short on legendary pop songs. Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Uptown all sound pretty good, even if the live band can’t hope to match the studio production values. They finish their set with He’s A Rebel, which just about survives some unneccesarily modern vocal histrionics, and it was a privilege to have heard them.
Next up, almost immediately, were Tavares, who weren’t lacking in original members or energy, and immediately got the Arena on its feet for It Only Takes A Minute, a song with plenty of local relevance of course. Unashamedly cheesy, their disco-soul hits were perfect for the largely female and largely middle-aged crowd, so the likes of Whodunnit, More Than A Woman and Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel all went down incredibly well. Having only a fairly short slot worked well for them because it meant that only a pointless version of Killing Me Softly was a misfire.
After an interval, the question was which of the two headliners would be on first. For democratic reasons, presumably, the Tempts and the Tops alternate who closes the show. Unfortunately, this time it was the Tops who were last up, so The Temptations were next and put on a hell of a performance. Otis Williams may be the only original left alive, but with falsetto Ron Tyson having been in the group since the early 80s, there does feel like a legitimacy in their existence, especially as they’re still recording and releasing new material, and sound about as good as they probably ever did.
It’s hard not to watch them perform and image the likes of Eddie Kendricks in the place of Tyson, or David Ruffin in the place of Bruce Williamson, or Melvin Franklin’s booming voice in place of Joe Herndon, but it says a lot about those in the roles now that this isn’t neccessarily a bad thing. Williamson may be the newest member of the group (six years and counting), but his vocals are fantastic and his stage presence too, even if his size precludes him from some of the more energetic dance routines. No such problems for Williams though, even in his 71st year.
The Tempts could have played a whole headline set full of hits, but the likes of Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, Ball of Confusion, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, I Wish It Could Rain, Get Ready, I Can’t Get Next To You came thick and fast and even with on-stage banter and tributes to Williams, their set flew past. The highlight (of the whole show) was a wonderful Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) sung by Tyson, while My Girl was an obvious fan favourite. Perfectly-judged, The Temptations would have made excellent headliners and an amazing end to the show.
However, The Four Tops were the headliners this time, and struggled a little bit. While the Tempts had briefly paid tribute to their fallen band members, the Tops made the unfortunate decision to spend what felt like almost half of their set remembering their own. Given that the original Tops had last together for an incredible 40+ years, it’s not surprising that last man standing Duke Fakir feels it necessary to pay homage, but in the context of a show like this, it just didn’t work to have individual songs (covers, too) for each of his late friends, especially when they were as mawkish as Dance With My Father (sung by Lawrence Payton’s two songs) and My Way (sung, rather unwisely, by Fakir on his own).
At a tribute concert, this would have been fine, but four years on from the most recent of their passings, it felt self-indulgent to spend so much time on it, and the crowd were drifting away in large numbers during My Way. Another problem for the Tops is that their sound relied heavily on the vocals of Levi Stubbs, in a way that no single Temptation was as crucial, so without him, they aren’t quite the same. They also lost his replacement as lead singer, Theo Peoples (formerly of, yes, The Tempts) who left last year, so a lot of pressure rested on Harold ‘Spike’ Bonhart’s shoulders.
He was fine, but lacked the power of Stubbs, and the Tops therefore came across as a lot less ‘authentic’ and impressive than their Motown contemporaries. They got the crowd going with great songs like Reach Out I’ll Be There, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), Standing In The Shadows Of Love, Bernadette and Baby I Need Your Loving, but with the long misfire of the tribute section, they felt like an anticlimax compared to The Temptations. That said, nobody leaving the Arena could deny that they’d seen four great bands play a hell of a lot of great songs. So who could really complain?