Review by Tom Frodsham
If you’re not aware of who Martha Reeves and The Vandellas are to be quite frank, you should be ashamed of yourself. Whenever anyone recalls great Motown female acts, it’s The Supremes who hold court as the most famous girl group. But before The Supremes got their big break, it was Martha and her girls who broke out and became Motown’s earliest commercial success story. The Supremes were soft, innocent and sang about ‘Baby Love’, whereas Martha Reeves and The Vandellas had an earthier, powerful energy with tracks like ‘(Love is Like a) Heatwave’.
On Friday night Gorilla was home to the group’s next tour stop. They’d been here only last year and couldn’t resist visiting Manchester again. The venue was packed, and sold out within days of tickets going on sale, showing just how much Martha’s legacy is still loved.
Martha gloriously entered the stage and didn’t waste a second of our time bursting into the Jackie Wilson classic ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’. I know I’ve heard some high-pitched vocals before, but Martha could reach notes even Mariah Carey can only dream of. It was a great way to introduce herself to the audience and kick things off with a bang.
Martha is a gracious performer and introduced us to her eight piece band that including saxophone, trumpets, trombone and then to her Vandellas. Sister Lois Reeves, who joined the band in 1967 and ‘saved my life’ according to Martha when she stepped in and replaced Betty Kelly who walked out on the group. Along with Delphine Reeves, another sister of Martha’s who joined the group in 1980. Both held their poise and strong vocals without fault all night.
Reeves mixed up the set list with a few covers- including The Beatles’ ‘Something’- and even the B-Side ‘A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)’, Martha explained it ‘is one of those B-sides that becomes as big as an A-Side’. Strange because we don’t get B-sides anymore do we? It’s something of a lost art in music. The track had that classic Motown feel to it and introduced us to another example of their best work. Manchester’s crowd responded to Martha all night and picked up even more after ‘Nowhere to Run’.
‘Now Manchester, I’ve been looking for a man. I was here a year ago and he’s never come back. Will you help me call him back Manchester?’ that track (and man) was the underrated ‘Jimmy Mack’. Not only did the audience love that one but it practically brought the house down and got the best reaction of the whole night. Even though Martha missed her cue a few times, it really didn’t matter. At 74, she still put her heart and soul in every song and fed off the audiences’ awe of her. ‘(Love Is Like a) Heatwave’ is a personal favourite of Martha’s hits; it’s probably the main reason I first loved Motown. The fact they milked the song and made it an explosive 10-minute number made it even better!
‘Gorilla, you guys are messing us up! We’re not gonna wanna play anywhere else but here!’ Martha told us. It wasn’t a surprise Martha loved us so much. It was only the night before when performing in London they had to cut the show short after an idiot audience member shouted racial abuse at Martha resulting in a fight breaking out, so Martha had to leave the stage. Obviously Manchester has a much greater respect for a music legend.
Towards the end of the set Martha payed tribute to Marvin Gaye with a fantastic rendition of ‘What’s Going On?’. Marvin was Martha’s eye candy back in the day ‘even though he was with Tammi Terrell at the time, I had the biggest crush on him. He really was the best’.
Naturally, Martha saved the best till last and ended the night with an energetic lengthy version of signature track ‘Dancing In The Street’ with elements of ‘Knock On Wood’ added into the mix. Martha knew how to end on a high. There was no encore but there was no need for it really. Martha Reeves and The Vandellas gave Manchester an A* show that justified not only the groups’ legacy but also our cities love for everything Motown.