The summer sunlight made our arrival time of 6:30pm seem even earlier, but there were a lot of acts to get through before the Sidney Myer Music Bowl’s 11pm cut off time. The woman behind the counter flipped through some pages and couldn’t find my name but handed over a ticket anyway. “Oh there’s supposed to be two?” I said. She shrugged and passed a second one, which I took to be a sign that sales for tonight’s show — the cheapest seats of which were $160 — may not have been great.
But man there was a lot of famous names on tonight’s bill; pulled together as some sort of ill advised ‘Hits From 1978!’ style package, a proposition that was completely tacky and disrespectful to each of the act’s legacies, but also yielded the promise of hearing some absolute bangers.
When we walked in there were several hundred people lazing in the grassy GA area, but I was surprised to see that the seated section — for the folks who paid the big bucks — was full, and not only that, everyone was on their feet, cheering at Sister Sledge’s arrival.
Producer/songwriter/guitarist Nile Rodgers has stated on several occasions that 1979’s We Are Family is the best album that The Chic Organisation ever made. In my opinion it’s something of a gold standard in classic disco pop music and contains all of the group’s biggest hits, which was also I why I made sure to arrive on time.
‘The Greatest Dancer’ literally featured a dance solo from an anonymous male dancer while the three charismatic singers — two of whom are original members following the passing of Joni Sledge in 2017 — moved around him. The largely middle aged crowd loved it and responded enthusiastically to every request for participation, and were rewarded with an extended version of ‘We Are Family’ as the group’s second and final song. Yep, two songs, 15 minutes.
While the sound for Sister Sledge wasn’t great — the too-loud snare sounding tennis ball being thwacked — importantly their vocals were at a good level, which was more than the Village People got. Throughout their 45 minute set the group’s current lineup — which features original singer Victor Willis and a new cast of singers and players that were hired after a successful lawsuit against the existing group that had been touring under that name for the past 40 years, it’s an interesting story, look it up — suffered from muffled vocals outside of Willis’ lead. The crowd didn’t seem to care though. Have you ever seen a few thousand people trying to remember how to do the YMCA moves? I have, and it was good.
The Pointer Sisters had a crack hot band behind them and the best overall sound of the night. ‘I’m So Excited’ came early and had everyone on their feet, while ‘Jump’ sounded exactly like the 1983 recording, and I mean that as a compliment. The group, now consisting of an original sister, a daughter and a granddaughter, sounded great and breezed through their set like consummate professionals.
By now the audience looked like they had been making several trips to the bar and were more than ready for Kool and the Gang, who brought out their huge band (I think I counted 12?) bit by bit before Robert ‘Kool’ Bell emerged triumphantly. True to the disco funk sound on which they made their name, Kool and the Gang dished out the hits you would expect while showcasing a particularly talented horn section and the still smooth tone of Bell’s crooning vocal. The generic disco ball graphic that was displayed on the screen as they played added a decidedly B-grade air to proceedings, as did the backing vocalists with their spangly outfits and choreographed steps. ‘Celebration’ was the obvious highlight, the extended outro of which was used by the singer to hug the front row and greet as many people as possible.
Part of why I felt a bit off about the whole event was that amongst all of the cheesy glitter ball imagery and pissed middle aged blokes who came dressed as Disco Stu was the fact that one of the most famous groups of all time were the headline act. Of course it could never be the same after Michael Jackson left the group in 1984 but still, performing before a thin crowd on a Wednesday night in Melbourne, and in this setting, seemed bizarre.
Want to know what else was bizarre? After the remaining four Jacksons — arguably one of the most celebrated vocal groups in pop history — took the stage, freezing into poses on the beat under individual spotlights, for the first two songs you could barely hear their vocals. The volume then improved somewhat but the sound was never right, as if it had been mixed and effected to make sense all together without taking into account the way that many of their songs are structured, which is that different members takes turns in singing lead from verse to verse. The vocals weren’t just low, they were muddy and difficult to discern, at least from where I was standing directly adjacent to the mixing desk, and for some unfathomable reason they never improved.
The Jacksons themselves — Jermaine, Jackie, Tito and Marlon — delivered their performance as you would expect: like an older, slightly slower, version of the energetic showbiz-driven kids that tore up the pop charts from 1964 to 1989. With such a big catalogue to draw from it was pleasantly surprising to see them play several less familiar songs as well as tastefully only twice borrowing from Michael’s solo career (‘Rock With You’ and ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’). Why would you need to with ‘Blame it on the Boogie’, ‘Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)’, ‘ABC’, ‘I’ll Be There’ and ‘Can You Feel It’ amongst your own hits?
Some of their earlier Jackson 5 hits from the Motown era were given the medley treatment, but despite being brief it was still a thrill to hear the opening melody of ‘I Want You Back’ as they performed the iconic slow-mo spin-and-kicks routine, as seen in countless old clips when they were fronted by an 11 year old Michael.
It was hard to tell what sort of chemistry remains between the brothers, now in their ‘60s, but they were all smiles and professionalism throughout the set’s 50 minutes, which ended exactly on schedule, without the question of an encore.
Written for Beat Magazine.