In jazz they’re called ghost bands: the eerily deathless, headless groups of a Basie or Mingus, allowing the late leader’s music to still be played.
The two greatest male Motown groups have been whittled by time till only one original Top and Temptation survive to sing their exhilaratingly youthful songs. Still, only the top tiers of the 02 are discreetly veiled for their latest return. Some of the crowd have been dancing to them for so many years they now have limp to their seats with ushers; others are young soul Mods. What could be cynical exploitation, bands reduced to brands, instead honours these fans with a well-drilled show, with a tenuous but true grasp on a glorious past.
The Temptations recall the travesties of early Motown dress codes in outlandish red-and-white hunting outfits. Otis Williams has been a Temp for most of his 70 years, but its big, bald Bruce Williamson, who only joined in 2007, who provides the shredded screams. Though Earl Van Dyke Jr., son of Motown’s late studio pianist Earl Van Dyke, leads a crack band with a big brass section for tonight’s groups to ride, the vocals are everything. From the hitching falsetto on the lovelorn “My Girl” to the bass boom of the “and the band played on…” line in “Ball of Confusion” from their 1970 psychedelic soul phase, these Temptations still harmonise across a wide range. The revolutionary intent of the latter, Norman Whitfield-produced interlude in their careers (including “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone”, an earthquake-tremor rumble tonight) sits strangely with their fluttering, formation dance-moves.
In contrast to the often fractious Temptations, The Four Tops stayed united till 1997, Levi Stubbs’ 2000 stroke and 2008 death the most grievous of the blows which leave only Abdul “Duke” Fakir standing. His solo spot on “My Way” is warily indulged, as is Lawrence Payton’s son and replacement Rocquel on the understandably sentimental “To Dance With My Father Again” (sung with his brother). But what really counts is an arsenal of explosive hits even the Rolling Stones would envy: the Gothic grandeur of “Bernadette”, the hungry growl which was Stubbs’ trademark snapping onto “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, and “It’s the Same Old Song” among them. The three dead Tops are carefully honoured mid-show. And the Duke and the crowd dance agelessly on.