Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

Their gig at the Button Factory was a masterclass in crowd-pleasing nostalgia.

Mon, May 12, 2014, 15:57


When I heard Martha and the Vandellas were playing the Button Factory, I couldn’t quite believe it. The actual Martha Reeves and the actual Vandellas? The girl band with tunes such as ‘Nowhere To Run’? And ‘Dancing In The Street’? And ‘Jimmy Mack’? Yes. That Martha and the Vandellas.

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But you never know what you’re going to get from these gigs. At 72, could Martha Reeves still cut it? Would the crowd show up? The answer to both of those questions was a resounding yes. And at the Button Factory last Thursday, the singers and their band – a mixture of local and their own musicians – played a gig that rolled from banging out the hits, to brilliant insights into Motown history. Still got it.

Reeves is incredibly charismatic. She prefaced one of their most famous tracks with the rally call of “Good morning Vietnam!”, after an anecdote about going to the cinema with her son to see the iconic movie where Robin Williams calls out her band’s name and then launches into ‘Nowhere To Run’. Her between song banter was peppered with tales of being a country girl while her fellow singers were born in Detroit (Dusty Springfield slagged her accent, she mentions), she reeled off countless producers and singers of the Motown era contextualising each song when it was made and by whom, she joked about pissing the Beatles off by covering their material when they weren’t covering her’s but opting for her peers’ tunes instead, she talked about conversations with Marvin Gaye, covered Stevie Wonder, and consistently and graciously bigged up her musicians. It was half show, half history lesson, and a brilliant one at that. Her copious Guinness references weren’t just dropped in to please the Dublin crowd either, as she sipped pints after the gig while signing records and posing for photos. Everyone in the crowd – from teenagers to those in their 60s and older – were up dancing. It was hugely emotional, massively fun, and one to remember.

Reeves also poignantly recalled that she thought her career was toast way back in 1972, after the ‘Black Magic’ album when Motown left Detroit for LA, leaving her in the lurch with a two-year-old son. What resilience then to keep going, and still rock it 42 years later. Reeves’ talent and longevity can also be viewed in the context of the recent ’20 Feet From Stardom’ documentary. Reeves is about talent, and her career is about tunes, it’s about strength, power, artistry, it’s about knowledge of the songs themselves and how to transmit them, how to rock a crowd and give them what they want. Reeves has lasted because she’s good. You don’t need the X Factor backstory or the marketable image or the accompanying perfume or the glossy and anodyne PR. Talent and stage presence lasts, and without that you might burn bright for a while, but ultimately, you’ll have nowhere to run. The songs that Martha and the Vandellas sing will be around for another 50 years, and how many modern day bands can claim that?