All words: Sean Davidson, Marcus Dowling –– All photos: Blinkofanaye
One day you wake up and realize you’ve somehow landed backstage at a Jacksons concert. The Jacksons, as in, music royalty, the Jacksons as in…Michael. It’s just like David Byrne quizzes, “And you may ask yourself: ‘how did I get here?’” As art director of The Howard Theatre, I am fortunate to have access to a lot of diverse artists who populate our dressing rooms. You frequently hear the tuning of instruments, often a cacophonous barrage of guitar strumming not unlike a Guitar Center. The narrow backstage hallways often echo in the bustle of preparations, a noise reminiscent of elementary school cafeterias.
Backstage at the theatre is a hive — the clang of metal catering trays, the whiny, wonky tuning of horns, the constant babble and buzz of cell phones and walkie-talkie static — a swarm serving to prepare and give energy to the artists. It is an amazing venue, a space that Grammy winners call home for 10 hours. It is an active yet small backstage space, an area somehow contrary to the lavish lifestyle you’d expect from music legends like the Jacksons.
Earlier in the week, a man with security guard stature and sunglasses rolled-in 2 massive leopard print suitcases into The Howard Theatre. These suitcases had an aura about them, albeit the leopard print with black vinyl trim and gold zippers. These suitcases screamed “Beverly Hills,” “Posh Spice,” and “diet Louis Vuitton.” The suitcases rolled into the confines and security of our office where our director of marketing proclaimed:
“These are the Jacksons”
Only the Jacksons ball in a way where they pre-ship a fraction of their wardrobe. There is a certain trust in that lavish shipment, an insured thought where one proclaims “well if we lost these suitcases we could just buy new ones.” Only the Jacksons ship massive “you could smuggle kids in here” suitcases with leopard patterns that decry “whoever we are, we are fashionistas”.
We were told that the luxury cases contained the shoe selection to be worn by 4 of the most famous brothers the world had seen. The aura of the luggage radiated pop cultural. Every image my brain ever recorded of them seemed to play in some foggy cinema of Motown zen. Do you know what it feels like to play “ABC” on Youtube while the Jacksons wardrobe sits next to you? It speaks to you. It sweats a soulful aura.
The day of the show was nothing short of it’s expectations as massive rows of wizardly bedazzled jackets appeared in the dressing rooms. Simply put, the outfits looked like Richard Simmons met up with Carl Lagerfeld and got drunk in a bead store. There was an assistant who simply steamed their wardrobe for hours on end. She was probably some fashion demigod with connections to Vanity Fair who somehow ended up living out her childhood fantasy, touring with the Jacksons and steaming their parade clothing.
The Friday night show was an amazing procession of classic J5 hits, penchant to both music and American history. With frequent odes to Michael, their show included a large live band dressed in similar flagrant regalia. The Jacksons vocals and stage presence melted away the work week as nearly everyone danced to the remaining 4 brothers. They still bring down the house, defying their age, looking alive, their shoes with more frequent flyer miles than the rest of us.
– Sean Davidson
Concert review by Marcus Dowling:
There’s a large percentage of the world that loves Michael Jackson. He will always – even in memory – be the King of Pop, deserving moniker for 40-plus years of service to the betterment of popular music and human lives worldwide. From that percentage, there’s a sizable percentage of people who love his brothers as well. They were, after all, an ensemble cast, pushed as such for literally 20 years. A more important point than the joy of pop nostalgia, though? If you ever needed an education on magnificent pop songwriting and magical orchestration then the Jacksons (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon) live, yet bittersweet performance on Friday night at DC’s Howard Theatre was certainly a phenomenally worthwhile time.
I once had a discussion with a friend regarding the notion that Michael Jackson was an amazingly talented artist turned into a legend by the work of Berry Gordy, Gamble and Huff and Quincy Jones, some of the truly legendary all-time auteurs. It’s in seeing and hearing these legendary songs in a space without Michael’s physical presence that this rings true. Late era funk disco jams “Blame it On the Boogie” and “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” are generally just amazing songs with extraordinary hooks. When the four brothers performed them early on Friday night, the seated crowd at the Howard jumped to their feet, 40 and 50 year old women became screaming teenyboppers yet again. Yes, de-facto Jacksons lead vocalist Marlon Jackson no longer sports a voluminous and perfect afro, nor is he still sporting an incredible jheri curl. However, there they were, fans, in full memory and appreciation of the era in which he did, and he was a part of one of the most successful R & B acts in music history.
The true musical highlight of the event was marveling at the fact that the Jackson men sounded perfectly comfortable singing songs they made famous when they were the Jackson kids and teenagers. “Maybe Tomorrow” was released as a single in 1971, when Jermaine Jackson was seventeen years old. However, hearing him sing
“But maybe tomorrow
You’ll change your mind, girl
You’ll come back to my arms, girl”
sounded like lyrics that could have been clear and present to his current life as a 57 year-old man. If expecting the child pop of “I Want You Back,” the emotion of four very grown men breathing life into these decades old love jams made you feel as if they dimmed the lights and added red filters, the scene would have felt far more appropriate. At the time when the Jacksons were stars, the females in the crowd had barely formed or slightly acted-upon ideas of what to do with their crushes on them. Now, they’re old enough to know, and certain of the outcome. If Marlon Jackson was uncertain as to why the crowd was more silent than expected during the crowd participation number “Show You the Way to Go,” it may have been from the same realization I had: As performed by folks with older, more nuanced voices, it becomes a KING SIZED slow jam, the type of song where sharing the moment with hundreds of other folks? Maybe not the move you’re contemplating at the moment.
But yes, if grown and sexy R & B as performed by childhood icons wasn’t your move for the evening, the Jacksons did oblige with Jackson 5 hits in medley form, and Michael’s “PYT.” These songs felt cold and disembodied from the event, in the sense that something became patently obvious during their performances. Young Michael Jackson and “Thriller” era Michael are cultural touchstones that cannot be approached, especially by his own family. As much as the brothers were there in the Motown era, when you hear the early Jackson 5 material without Michael, and especially as articulated by his brothers, you realize just how much of that era was all about MJ. Furthermore, seeing so many signature hand gestures, thigh slaps, spins, twirls and drops of Michael Jackson lore being aped by his brothers made the songs feel cheap and the moment cold. Sure, the music is nostalgic, and the lyrics, too. but as much as I respect Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon Jackson, they’re not Michael, and ultimately should feel no pressure whatsoever to be him.
There’s a way to present a Jacksons performance without making it sadly, at the end of the night, all about Michael Jackson. There’s B-sides from the Motown era, as well as songs from the Jacksons era at CBS Records where Michael as a central piece to the group was de-emphasized. The songs and productions that the Jackson brothers were gifted during their amazing careers are numerous, and as performers, they still have the rare magic that great entertainers possess. Four engaging legends with a slew of powerful pop/R & B numbers who just happened to share a stage with the King of Pop? If you heard what I heard on Friday night, it’s a sold out concert that anybody, anywhere, would pay to see. However, I saw four brothers occasionally having fun, but also tired of carrying the sad weight of the heavy memory of their beloved youngest brother, a man who also was one of the most significant human beings that ever lived. When the nature of life’s cruelty and the joy of performance becomes a thin line to navigate, a concert tour isn’t the solution.