With an orange crescent moon and the nostalgic glow of the Fox Theatre behind them, the Jacksons lit up a stage in downtown Detroit Saturday night.
The onetime Motown Records group capped a long day of entertainment at Detroit Music Weekend, playing for thousands who assembled along Madison Street for the free festival’s main event.
It wasn’t without its glitches. Technical issues, including a malfunctioning video display, delayed the Jacksons’ set by an hour, and the group seemed in danger of losing some of the crowd before finally relenting to reality and taking the stage at 10:30 p.m.
The video issues never did get worked out. And so the Jacksons' carefully rehearsed production turned into a makeshift show of sorts, as the foursome carried on without the visual elements that had been described as integral to the set.
Still, brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon Jackson are old pros, and most onlookers would have been none the wiser that any bells and whistles were missing: The group and its eight-member backing ensemble whizzed through a short but spirited 60-minute set that functioned fine as it was, full of crisply choreographed moves, vintage hits and a couple of sentimental moments.
The performance, half a mile from the site of the Jackson 5’s successful Motown audition 50 years ago, culminated a two-day Jacksons celebration in Detroit that included a private gala Friday. There the four surviving Jacksons were bestowed ceremonial keys to the city, with a fifth displayed in honor of late brother Michael Jackson.
Detroit, as Marlon Jackson told the diverse crowd Saturday night, is a “second home” for the Indiana-nurtured group. He recounted the Jacksons’ early days here — from their amateur shows at the Fox in the ‘60s to their Motown deal, when the Jackson parents “passed the baton over to Berry Gordy.”
In their sparkling coordinated suits, the foursome hit the stage to the festive sounds of “Can You Feel It” — Tito bearing a guitar and Jermaine a bass that largely functioned as props. From there they rolled through a set showcasing songs from their Jackson 5 days at Motown and their later years as the Jacksons, along with four tunes plucked from Michael Jackson’s solo catalog.
At last year’s inaugural Detroit Music Weekend fest, Aretha Franklin headlined with a memorable, moving set widely billed as her final hometown performance. This year’s show didn’t come with that sort of emotional heft (or the backstage star power Franklin enticed with guests such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Supremes’ Mary Wilson).
Instead, what the Jacksons served up was a dose of full-on, unashamed nostalgia — delivered with just enough sizzle to keep it from lapsing into outdated routine. Locking into snappy, time-tested moves together, and backed by two singers who helped beef up the vocals, the group brought Vegas-ready polish with heart intact.
Jermaine, handling the bulk of the lead parts, was the most dynamic vocalist and Marlon was the most charismatic presence as the group rattled off the hits: “Blame it On the Boogie,” “Enjoy Yourself,” “Show You the Way to Go.” Much of the group’s earliest, bestselling work was condensed into a single medley, truncating the Motown fare that ignited fame all those years ago: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and others.
The medley was followed by a selection tailored for poignant impact, with no need for an onstage explanation: a performance of “Gone Too Soon,” the ballad popularized by Michael Jackson 16 years before his 2009 death.
The Jacksons topped a Saturday bill of music on five stages, including a Paradise Valley stage that hummed with satisfyingly soulful, homegrown R&B.
The main stage brought an eclectic array of Michigan-bred sounds, with well-crafted rock ‘n’ roll crunch from the Gasoline Gypsies and zesty, horn-spiced funk-soul from Will Sessions Band. Actor-singer Jeff Daniels charmed with an acoustic set ahead of the Jacksons, while his son Ben Daniels earlier led a set of warm Americana-rock.
Mark Farner, his voice still strong at 69, dipped into the bag of rock classics from his Flint band Grand Funk Railroad — and made it through his own technical misfortune: Midway through his set, water from the stage canopy abruptly poured down and shorted out his guitar amp. Farner made do, minus guitar, until a replacement was scrambled into place.
Detroit Music Weekend is produced by Music Hall, where the festivities will wrap up at 4 p.m. Sunday with a performance by the New York dance company Complexions Contemporary Ballet.
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacksons set list, Detroit Music Weekend, June 17, 2018
"Can You Feel It"
"Blame it on the Boogie"
"Rock With You"
"Show You the Way to Go"
(Medley) "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," "Dancing Machine," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "I'll Be There"
"Gone Too Soon"
"Can't Let Her Get Away"
"This Place Hotel"
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'"
"Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)"