The Motortown Revue Collection

It's taken a long time for the live portion of the early Motown library to finally get the treatment it deserves on compact disc -- what little of it has shown up was done very early in the CD era, when a lot of the work in finding and choosing source tapes and engineering them properly left a lot to be desired; and the early live albums by the likes of the Miracles and Marvin Gaye have never shown up legitimately, leading one to believe that there are problems finding proper master tapes on them. The four Motortown Revue albums assembled here -- of which the first three, dating between 1963 and 1965, certainly qualify as being representative of the label's classic era -- show what can be done with this repertory when the sources do exist. There are rough moments, to be sure, as it wasn't easy to record a live R&B show in those days, but the excitement of the performers and the audience overcome most of those technical flaws. The Contours bound right over the technical limitations like acrobats vaulting a not-too-high obstacle, and from there we get the Supremes with Florence Ballard center stage on the lead -- which by itself is worth the price of admission -- followed by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder doing incredible things vocally, and the Marvelettes followed by Mary Wells (rousing the audience with the beautiful, stirring "Bye Bye Baby"). The Miracles close out the show with killer renditions of "You Really Got a Hold on Me" (including their segue into one verse and chorus of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me") and "Way Over There," a single that they and Berry Gordy loved so much that they recorded it at least twice, and which here gets a high-octane reading that emphasizes the call-and-response component of the song, an element that was lost on the various studio renditions, amid their instrumental splendor. The work done on the sound for this reissue makes it worth hearing all over again anew, no matter how long one has known this record: the sound may have been on the raw, primitive side, but the engineers have done their best to bring out the nuances of the playing and singing, and retained the visceral energy of the performances, so much so that one easily draws a clear image of what these performances must have looked like as well. The other three volumes -- representing much of the rest of the major history of Motown across the '60s -- feature, in addition to more performances by the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, and Stevie Wonder, the work of Martha & the Vandellas, Kim Weston, the Temptations, Earl Van Dyke, the Originals, Blinky, Bobby Taylor, and Gladys Knight & the Pips, all mostly at the top of their respective games -- were recorded under far less challenging technical circumstances, and they fare even better in this setting. Indeed, the last volume, Motortown Revue Live from 1969 -- ironically, the only part of this set to ever have seen an official CD release, for all of about five minutes some 15 years earlier -- is among the finest sounding live soul documents that one is ever likely to hear. The packaging here may seem a little awkward to some onlookers -- the tendency since the late '90s has been to make multi-CD sets like this smaller and more compact, but in this case the producers have put the four volumes into mini-LP-style sleeves (without inner sleeves to protect the CDs, a continuing oversight), and put them inside of an oversized, coffee-table-book-sized package that also includes a booklet that re-creates elements of the original program books for each of the events captured here, and a reproduction of an original tour poster. It's not as cumbersome as it might sound from this description -- in fact, apart from the absence of inner sleeves (come on -- if the Japanese can do it, why can't we?), it's surprisingly handy -- and the three-hours-plus of music is well worth the asking price. ~ Bruce Eder

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