An exhilarating and astutely executed walk down memory lane, Motown’s long-ignored musicians continue to extend the Funk Brothers brand as established, for the general public, in the film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” The songs in this repertoire are known — and cherished — by virtually every man, woman and child who has ever turned on a radio, and they ensure that the renditions are note-for-note perfect and tonally in sync with the way they did it in Detroit in the 1960s and early ’70s.
But in their zealousness to establish themselves as a vital organ within the Motown body, they cement a feeling of divisiveness between the band and the Berry Gordy-led company that hired them. Strong as their concert is — thanks to commanding vocal perfs from Joan Osborne and Darlene Love — the Funk Brothers are a bit too hell-bent on securing their name and nothing else. Rarely do they mention performers, producers, songwriters or choreographers — the folks who have received all the credit over the years for Motown’s success — and yet the way this show is built, it does celebrate Motown as a whole and not just the parts supplied by keyboards, bass, drums and guitar.
Motown’s management, past and present, though, should be listening: This label’s music has never sounded better in a concert setting. Its nearly 2½ hours of hits and near-hits plays perfectly and is sung with admirable brio by Love, Osborne, Maxi Priest and the Philadelphians John Ingram and Carla Benson. First half is an expertly paced romp through Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” the Four Tops’ “Reach Out,” Mary Wells’ “Don’t Mess With Bill” (Osborne at her most sultry) and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” Marvin Gaye style. A quartet of males in the audience comes onstage to deliver “My Guy.” A medley of tunes from Shorty Long allows the Brothers to demonstrate their specific brand of northern funk.
They have no problem reproducing the “Standing in the Shadows” soundtrack (Hip-O). Good thing because few records are worse than Motown live albums. The backing bands always sounded under-rehearsed, they played melody lines behind the singers, and there was none of the sharpness one associates with the studio recordings. In short, the Funk Brothers weren’t there.
They exist now strictly as the result of the doc “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” released theatrically last year by Artisan and Tuesday on DVD. Documentary chronicled the relatively unknown musicians who worked uncredited at Motown from 1959 to 1972. Seven have died — two since the film was shot — and Wednesday the ensemble of six ended an 11-city tour, their first.
Of course, the musicians assembled hail from a variety of Motown periods. Keyboardist Joe Hunter, at Motown 1958 through 1963, played on Martha & the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and Gaye’s “Pride and Joy”; Uriel Jones played the instantly identifiable drums on the Temps’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”; and Bob Babbitt, who left Wonder’s band to fill James Jamerson’s larger-than-life shoes, set the bass tone for Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Joe Messina (“Dancing in the Street,” “I Can’t Help Myself”) didn’t play his guitar for nearly 30 years after Motown left Detroit, while fellow six-stringer Eddie Willis (“I Was Made to Love Her,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do”) spent 1972-92 on the road with the Four Tops. Jack Ashford, considered a tambourine virtuoso, hits instruments as diverse as vibes, wood blocks, bells and finger cymbals on songs such as “What’s Goin’ On” and “Where Did Our Love Go.”
All of them get their chance to shine individually, though Alan Slutsky, one of the film’s producers and the band’s auxiliary guitarist, presents the Funk Brothers as a whole. It would go a long way to hear the riffs isolated along with a story about how a sound came to be. Instead the audience is treated to some mighty funny stories about painting a car and Gaye’s love of marijuana and gambling. A little less talking would aid this show’s uneven second act and, as an ode to one of the greatest studio bands ever, it would be nice to hear an instrumental or two.