Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Treme: Hangar 34, Liverpool

Excited to see a Motown legend in an intimate space, Paul Robert Mullen can’t help but feel deflated with the reality.

By Planet Slop
Sat 26 October, 2019

Martha Reeves is part of Motown’s celebrated furniture, and boasts one of the greatest recording voices ever to grace our radio waves.

Her three biggest hits, the treasured Dancing in the Street, foot pounding Nowhere To Run, and indelible Jimmy Mack are jukebox staples across the globe, and evidence enough that she’s a legend.

Heatwave is possibly the most defining song of summer. Her name stands emboldened with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Jackson 5, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops, and Smokey Robinson – all stars on Berry Gordy’s unforgettable Detroit label, Motown, where dreams were made, and some of the greatest popular music of our times was created.

To be able to go and see such a person in a club as small as Hangar 34, Liverpool – even at the tail end of their career – filled me with excitement beyond measure.

At 78 years old she looked energised, and the small crowd were totally with her. This was an elder stateswoman of music history strolling on in her glittered finery, and we were all appreciative that she was even here at great-grandmotherly age to be sharing her epic back catalogue with us, though I couldn’t help but wonder how a golden Motown act like this had been reduced to such a tiny venue.  A Scouse crowd is always lively and warm anyway, regardless, and the warm up act, Treme, had put more than just a tap in people’s feet with an array of soul classics.

Now, where do I start?

Oh Martha, I really, really, really wanted it to be good. We all did. Every one of us in that club. The crowd were egging her on, whooping and hollering. When the music kicked in, however, that anticipation soon turned to alarm. The sound was a mushy, incomprehensible soup. The guitar player waved frantically at an uninterested sound guy, and the opening sax solo went completely unnoticed. I smiled through Martha’s opening yodels, hoping that it was just a rough start. Martha’s sister Vandellas, Lois and Delphine, never looked up. A crowd that had been bopping to the anticipatory tunes before her arrival had become statues.

The band’s sound slightly improved as she kicked into Nowhere To Run, yet Martha’s wildly unpredictable bellows were turning heads for all the wrong reasons. One woman leaned into my ear and asked “Is that really Martha Reeves?” One couple said they were off for a Chinese four songs in, and a trail gradually followed throughout the near ninety minute set. My heart sank and the energy in the room gradually diminished.

Martha’s stories about her 58 year career were entertaining, and a bright spot in the night; the history of Motown, Berry Gordy, Marvin Gaye, Jagger and Bowie’s version of Dancing In The Street, and a tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. It dawned on me that some kind of “In Conversation” tour, where Martha talked about her career and indulged fans in a Q&A could be wildly entertaining.

Because Reeves still has charisma, and certainly has enthusiasm for what she does. Her band were smoking pretty hot as the gig wore on. The horns were particularly entertaining, and every time the sax player stepped forward (his mic had been hiked up) I couldn’t help but smile.

Over their glittering career, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas scored 26 transatlantic hits. A phenomenal achievement in anyone’s book, and testament to the talent that Martha had in those heady early days when the Detroit sound was maturing into something global and enduring. I came home after a rather unenthused reception and put her records on.

I fell asleep smiling at the classic sound, and made peace that this is the real Martha Reeves.

Photos by Gary Dougherty