An Untimely Concert from the Jacksons

IMG_6632It was an auspicious moment in Jacksons history Friday, happening in a snowy and frozen remote corner — a rural Minnesota casino, in one of just a couple of scheduled U.S. dates this year.

Only two days later, a world of Michael Jackson fans would be confronted with some ugly accusations in a long, thoughtful and still shocking documentary on HBO, “Leaving Neverland.” More than one critic has said you would never respond to his music the same again.

And certainly, scenes like those that popped up before the show in the carpeted ballroom, of stage mothers proudly shooting a portrait of a son dolled up in Jackson leathers and fedora, would be unseemly and distasteful as a Bill Cosby concert.

The Jacksons, who still tour here and there, had done their rounds of interviews denying the content of Dan Reed’s four hour opus, repeating their denials after the show at the Treasure Island Casino in southern Minnesota. “Just check the,” said Tito Jackson. “They’re only in it for the money,” he says of the two men who claim Michael used them for sex for decades.

He didn’t think the video, true or not, would affect the livelihood of the brothers Michael left behind long ago.

True, they had had strained relations with the most famous member of the family since the disastrous ”Victory” tour 34 years ago — which Michael said he did only to help prop up his brothers’ struggling career. But they stood behind him during the trial of 2005, in which he was found not guilty (in part by testimony by the documentary subjects who now say they were lying under oath).

And at Treasure Island Casino, they began with the Jacksons’ standard opener, “Can You Feel It” from “Triumph,” the Jacksons album that came out between Jackson’s own “Off the Wall” and “Thriller”. And after the 1978 “Blame It on the Boogie” came the familiar rat-a-tat of a Michael Jackson hit from “Off the Wall”, “Rock With You.”

What would usually create an upbeat sweep of nostalgic joy was tarnished by what we now knew, though the brothers swang through the song like nothing was different, as they would later for another unfettered MJ hit, this time from ’Thriller,’ “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” late in the hour-long set.

Already unusual for the standard Jacksons show — well before the current bombshells — was having them go through the motions of the kiddie pop group they were all once in, the Jackson 5, in a medley of hits from nearly 50 years ago – “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” before the moderately  more mature “Dancing Machine” from 1973.

Doing their spins and moves alongside the cartoon versions of themselves from their Saturday morning show of the early 70s, there weren’t five Jacksons though; not even four.

The front line here was Jackie, 67; Tito, 65; and Marlon, 61, who handled most of the frontman duties, though his falsetto could scarcely reach that high. Instead, a female background singer not only did most of the highest parts once done by Michael, but copied all the dance moves and spins of the front line too. And when everybody was looking around to who was singing the high notes that start “I’ll Be There,” that was her too.

And where was Jermaine? “In France, under the weather,” Marlon explained. “But one monkey don’t stop no show.”

Nor does two.

The one new song in the well-established set was “We Made It,” from a recording last year by Tito, distinguished by his guitar and his bowler hat. But I was surprised to find that the decent Triumph song “Heartbreak Hotel” had since been changed to “This Place Hotel” to avoid litigation from the estate of a performer whose daughter married Michael (as a cover, according to the documentary).

The show demonstrated that Michael’s touch was indeed special in music, even as it was also allegedly criminal and inhuman behind closed doors. Fans at Jacksons casino shows to come will have to see how they reconcile all of that.

How much easier would it have been for them had the headliners been more like the show openers — another group with Motown roots who lost their most famous member long ago and struggle on with three longtime members (only two of them originals).

The Commodores had long been a disco era band with a split personality that ricocheted from the balladry of Lionel Richie to the stone funk of “Brick House.” The latter once more closed the show, with Walter Orange, 72, still leading the charge. The set maintained the whiplash switches from love songs like “Easy,” “Still” and “Three Times a Lady” to the more upbeat “Lady (You Bring Me Up” and the instrumental “Machine Gun.”

But they had a little Michael Jackson connection, too, when they added his name to a re-recorded “Nightshift” the year after his 2009 death, and repeated again on stage with not only the original honorees Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, but also Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.

The setlist for The Jacksons Friday was:

  • “Can You Feel It”
  • “Blame It On the Boogie”
  • “Rock With You”
  • “Enjoy Yourself “
  • “Show You the Way to Go”
  • “Lovely One”
  • “I Want You Back” / “ABC” / “The Love You Save” / “Dancing Machine”
  • “Never Can Say Goodbye”
  • “I’ll Be There”
  • “We Made It”
  • “This Place Hotel”
  • “Wanna Be Starting Something”
  • “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)”

 The setlist for The Commodores Friday was: 

  • “I Feel Sanctified”
  • “Wild Thing”
  • “Too Hot ta Trot”
  • “Easy”
  • “Just to Be Close to You”
  • “Zoom”
  • “Sweet Love”
  • “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”
  • “Machine Gun”
  • “Still”
  • “Three Times a Lady”
  • “Nightshift”
  • “Brick House”


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