Who are these guys?
You grew up with them, but they’re different now. You know the songs, but they don’t sound the same.
Of course, because they are the Jacksons, not the Jackson 5. And they are the Jacksons in their mid-50s to early-60s, without their lead singer. But it doesn’t take long for the open-minded to realize it is possible to be a new group and an old one at the same time. A cover band that’s also the real thing.
Most of all, they are eternal showmen, if the opening weekend of what they hope will be an open-ended residency at Planet Hollywood Resort proved anything.
Jermaine, Marlon, Jackie and Tito may not have been equal parts of the original equation. But their collective presence — and the synchronicity in those superheroic stage moves — testify that entertaining us in their DNA, even if they do so with a little more deliberation and effort these days.
It was fair to ask if there would be a big, gaping hole on the stage in front of the guys we best remember chiming in “Sunlight … moonlight … good times … boogie” to Michael Jackson’s lead vocals. But Jermaine, 59, brings enough authority from his solo career to sell the lead vocals on “Blame It on the Boogie” and other classics, or trade them with 56-year-old Marlon, who remains “the dancingest Jackson.”
The inevitable Michael tribute finds Jermaine singing Michael’s “Gone Too Soon” in front of a photo montage of Michael. But the show’s biggest achievement may be that the whole thing doesn’t speak to his absence.
A smart set list sampling the group’s entire career aids the cause of this retrospective, giving new life to some of the songs we forgot once Michael became a cultural phenomenon that pushed his brothers further and further into the background.
Not that there’s any attempt to cut ties from Michael here. The Jacksons are happy to keep the lines blurred from those happy days circa the “Triumph” tour, when Michael’s solo hits such as “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” were folded into the group repertoire.
The quartet also digs into the years between the Jackson 5’s early bubble-gum explosion and the adult-sounding “Destiny” and “Triumph” albums. Lifelong fans will be rewarded with lost-years hits such as “Heaven Knows I Love You, Girl” and “Show You the Way to Go” (some featuring Jermaine not just as lead singer, but for the first time; he was off making solo albums when they were recorded).
And some good songs just welcome another chance to be heard. Isaac Hayes and others proved that with “Never Can Say Goodbye,” here given a nice read by Jermaine. He also takes a valid turn on the “Destiny” cut “Push Me Away,” one of several surprises you’d never thought you’d hear in a hits retrospective.
Tito Jackson, 60, adds his guitar to the seven-piece band that is well-hidden on a back riser, its three keyboardists paying homage to the old arrangements with sampled flutes and harpsichords. Tito and oldest brother Jackie, 62, occasionally trade vocal lines on songs such as “Man of War.” But they have a bigger role in the show’s brief attempt to add a biographical narrative.
Producer Adam Steck hopes to package the Jacksons with roommate Meat Loaf (and other shows still to come) as a “VH1 Storytellers”-like brand called “RockTellz and Cocktails.” Talking about himself — and even taking questions from the audience — comes second nature to Meat Loaf. But you can tell it’s about as fun for the Jacksons as a collective root canal.
You can’t really blame them, given a Shakespearean family saga of dysfunction that almost makes the sugar-coated highlights offered here seem comical. Some day, when there’s no reason to hold back, we’ll get the real stories.
For now, we get filmed bits with Berry Gordy and mother Katherine, and a live interlude with the four on stools laughing about Tito secretly borrowing father Joe’s guitar — which worked fine until he broke a string — or the Jackson 5’s debut at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater.
It’s fine though, just enough to give extra resonance to the big celebration of a homestretch. The Jacksons get us on our feet for “Can You Feel It,” “Heartbreak Hotel” (or is it “This Place Hotel”? Never sure) and the inevitable extended throwdown of “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).”
We’ll see if these Jacksons can sell tickets on the Strip when they’re still laboring in the shadow of their brother, this time Cirque du Soleil’s juggernaut tribute, “Michael Jackson One.”
Although “One” is by design a fanciful fairy tale affair, this one somehow comes off as a seasoned and slightly damaged testimony to years gone by. Even if, one suspects from all the sunglasses and posturing, they didn’t intend it that way.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.