Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The Jackson brothers at the Apollo Theater in Harlem on Thursday. From left, Tito, Jackie, Marlon and Jermaine.
There was no avoiding thoughts of Michael Jackson when the Jacksons — his four older brothers, Jermaine, Marlon, Tito and Jackie — brought their Unity Tour to the Apollo Theater on Thursday night. Just over three years after Michael Jackson’s death, it was a show that treaded carefully between respect and exploitation.
Michael’s image on a video screen brought some of the concert’s biggest cheers, and Jermaine’s performance of “Gone Too Soon,” a song from Michael Jackson’s 1991 “Dangerous” album that has become his own eulogy, was a tender, tearful supplication.
Yet the Jacksons were more troupers than mourners. They took over what had been Michael’s lead vocals, borrowed some of his solo songs, picked up his angular moves and pushed the concert to be the kind of dance party celebrated in many of their hits, from “Blame It on the Boogie” to “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).”
Now the brothers who had been so thoroughly overshadowed could emerge on their own. Marlon was dancer and host, taking credit for pulling together the Jacksons’ reunion. Jermaine was a smooth soul man, Tito a down-to-earth guitarist, Jackie the utility harmony singer.
The Jacksons’ Apollo booking — they’re playing bigger places elsewhere on the tour — was a nod to their history. Winning on Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1967, when Michael was 9, and the group was called the Jackson 5, was an early milestone for them. Marlon Jackson reminisced onstage about standing in the wings with Michael at the Apollo, absorbing the lessons of James Brown and Jackie Wilson performing nearby.
If Michael had not gone on to such a monumental solo career, the Jackson 5 — renamed the Jacksons in 1976, with Jermaine replaced by their younger brother, Randy Jackson — would still have been a prototypical boy band. That’s why they have been so closely studied by acts from New Edition to One Direction.
They were wholesome, finely harmonized and thoroughly choreographed from the beginning, when the Motown hit factory groomed them and provided songs. (Unfortunately, at the concert their early Jackson 5 hits, like “ABC” and “I Want You Back” — some of their best material, even if it was written by Motown staff rather than the Jacksons themselves — was truncated and rushed through as a medley, with lead vocals from Jackie Jackson that were only adequate.)
They then figured out how to grow up together, exchanging the precocious charm of their Jackson 5 hits for seductions, dance songs and idealism as the Jacksons. “Can You Feel It,” which opened the concert, called for universal togetherness, and “Man of War,” Jackie’s best lead vocal onstage, pleaded for pacifism.
At the Apollo, choreography was still paramount for the Jacksons. Vocal precision came and went, possibly because of technical problems, but the Jacksons hit their physical cues. Marlon had the most vigorous moves, dropping to his knees, strutting and twirling (though not quite moonwalking like Michael).
And the Jackson brothers synced with him, with shoulder twitches, hip swings or upraised arms frozen in the air, clutching microphones. They were brothers working together; at times they looked as if they were just moving to the music or playing around, only to align in formation a few beats later.
Jermaine Jackson, who had a successful solo career in the late 1970s and ’80s, sang his own segment of the concert, including his hits “Let’s Get Serious” and the wounded, nicely unspecific “Do What You Do.”
But Michael Jackson hovered over the rest of the performance. Once Michael’s solo career moved into gear, the Jacksons got only the B-level material. So to pump up the party, the set grabbed songs that Michael Jackson recorded without his brothers, like “Rock With You” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” with its irresistible beat and increasingly nutty lyrics; the Jackson brothers pointed fingers at one another to taunt, “You’re a vegetable.”
With or without their brother, they were geared to entertain, and an audience fond of all things Jackson was happy to share the familial groove.
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