Being raised by a fiery-tongued Irish woman who weighed no more than 100 pounds but carried herself as if she were Josey Wales in a house coat, you never quite knew what kind of mood my mother would be in on any given morning.
On those unpredictable dawns when the mood of the day hung in the balance, there were two thing I could always count on: If the house was quiet, well, we were all screwed. That only meant that my mother was marinating somewhere about something – a light left on in the basement, an unzipped bag of cold cuts wasting away in the crisper, sneaker marks on the hallway rugs lined tighter than the outfield grass at Fenway Park.
You know, the big stuff.
Sometimes during those early hours, my mother would launch into a fit of rage, never quite knowing what she was raging against, but rage she would with the thunderous clap of a thousand lightning storms.
It was an impressive show of force for such a slight frame. Frightening and impressive.
But, on those precious mornings when the house was filled with the sounds of Motown coming from a small kitchen radio, oh, baby, life was grand. The Ronettes, The Supremes, Donna Summer, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye or Frankie Valli, all those rich voices mixing with the smell of eggs and bacon provided a beautiful soundtrack to start the day.
Those marvelous Motown artists had the ability to smooth out the lines in my mother’s face and turn a three-minute song into something you couldn’t exactly trust, but were sure glad to hear. For however long it lasted.
I don’t remember my mother dancing much around the kitchen to “Stop In The Name of Love,” but I do remember she could carry a tune. Probably still can at 77. And she was proud of her voice. She’d save the chorus of the song to showcase her vocal range, kicking into “Baby love, my baby love, I need you, oh, how I need you,” as she slid a hot plate in front of my pudgy fingers.
There’s just something about Motown music that brings out that crooner in all of us, even those buried beneath a furnace of life’s rank frustrations. It’s true. I saw it, felt it, smelt it, tasted it, just last weekend at New England College in Concord, where one funky band and three funky solo artists tackled some classic Motown tunes and made them their own.
David Shore’s Trunk O’ Funk, Concord’s finest party band, kicked things off with “It’s Your Thing,” by the Isley Brothers. Game on! These five gents are not only some of the finest musicians around, but right up there with some of the kindest and most earnest individuals in the business.
From jump street the crowd was locked in.
Don Bartenstein from Northfield slowed things down by putting his own spin on “I Wish It Would Rain,” and a truly glorious rendition of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” Don channels Jim Croce when he sings and recalls Motown as the music of his youth. He’s a workhorse in this state when it comes to local music, and, by God, we’re all lucky to have “The Don” on our side.
Jumpin’ Jack Bopp from Henniker was next and Jack is more than willing to twist your arm into a sing-along. When he started to play “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” by Marvin Gaye on his acoustic guitar, the crowd, reserved at first, as most are at the start of a show, eventually bowed to Bopp persistence and sang out proudly, “It took me by surprise, I must say, when I found out yesterday…”
Then the earth broke wide open when Concord troubadour, Will Hatch, delivered a set of Motown songs that shook the foundation beneath our feet. Hatch, wearing dark Ray Ban sunglasses, did a version of Smokey Robinson’s, “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” that I’m yet to stop singing four days later. He flipped the song on its side, turning it into a countrified ballad.
It was the best live performance of any song I witnessed since the start of 2017. True that!
For an encore, all the performers – The Don, The Bopp, The Funk and Hatch – joined forces to pay a final homage to the men and women of Motown with a horn-laced, energetic take on Arthur Conley’s classic, “Sweet Soul Music.”
I personally requested that song because, well, that particular song, as I remember it, was my introduction to Motown, sometime back around ’77. It’s the song that frames the memories of my mother singing in the kitchen, smoothing out the lines in her face.