One of the oddest takeaways from watching Michael Jackson perform live was always the screaming.
Watch almost anything Jackson ever commissioned for live release – snippets from Moonwalker, the Bucharest concert recorded during the Dangerous tour – and you’ll see an increasingly disturbing parade of young people, sweating, screaming, crying, hyperventilating and fainting at the mere notion of a glance, point or step from the King of Pop – their king, their idol, an undying figure that law, fame and drugs could never break.
Those with any kind of performance or marketing savvy can easily deduce that, surely, these shrieking faces were just another piece in the gigantic, self-congratulatory puzzle that Jackson yearned to create for himself and the world. Sure, he was a pop idol for the ages, and as easily an inspiration of hysterics as, say, Elvis or The Beatles. But it’s a construct…right?
The last seconds of the first disc of Live at the Forum, a new vintage Jackson 5 title from Hip-o Select, may have you reconsidering that stance. The end of that first set, a record-breaking visit to the Los Angeles Forum, is pure white noise, punctuated only by the short, futile insistence of the show’s emcee, Rick Holmes, that the crowd settle down.
It’s easy to understand why the crowd isn’t listening.The Jackson 5 were always proven whiz kids in the studio. Michael, armed with that voice that would shoot you out of your seat like a cannon, knew how to hit every note with the right amount of soul and rasp. Backed by the tightly-wound backing vocals of brothers Jermaine, Jackie, Tito and Marlon and the best session players that Motown had to offer, those early J5 singles have nary a scratch on them.
But how many influential acts fall apart live? Sure, the Five did well when it came time to perform a tune or two on The Ed Sullivan Show, but could they hold an entire show on their own? Live at The Forum gives two discs worth of examples confirming that they could. That first set, recorded in June 1970 as “The Love You Save” was about to hit No. 1 on the charts, is a knock-down, drag-out exercise in pop-soul spectacle. There’s barely a bum note to be found, between Michael, Jermaine and Jackie sharing vocals, backed by Jermaine and Tito on bass and guitar and cousins Ronnie Rancifer and Johnnie Jackson on organ and drums. The hits are all there – “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” – plus the fan favorites “Who’s Lovin’ You” and Jermaine’s star turn on “I Found That Girl.”
And covers! Both shows are replete with some of the most interesting covers these youngsters from Indiana could plow through. Fans already know the J5 tackled “It’s Your Thing” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in the studio, but both these sets showcase the band running through “Feelin’ Alright,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again,” “There Was a Time” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
The second half of the release, which saw the Five returning to The Forum in 1972, days before Michael turned 14, is no tacked-on attraction, either. It’s a longer, tighter affair, with a solo set reserved for Michael to do his own hits (“Got to Be There,” “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,”) and some other tracks that really pop in concert setting (such as the single-only tracks “Sugar Daddy” and “I’m So Happy”). Vinyl collectors will rejoice at having the live cut of “I Wanna Be Where You Are” from the Save the Children soundtrack added as one of two extra bonus tracks.
While Live at The Forum easily stands as the band’s best live offering (light years better than the In Japan! LP that Select released years back), hardcore fans may take some gripes away from the package. The liner notes own up to most of the issues: technical difficulties prevented Sly and The Family Stone cover “Stand!” – the opening track of the first Forum set – from being included, and one of Michael’s solo tracks is actually taken from a different performance far from Los Angeles. But those faults are minor, considering that the set is well-mixed and properly-mastered, with colorful packaging to boot (it really captures that bubblegum-psychedelic look easily associated with early J5 artwork).
Plus, there’s that music. With Michael Jackson having shuffled off his mortal coil for a year, that’s all we really crave at the end of the day – the music from a boy/man we grew up with and came to love, through thick and thin. Live at The Forum is a powerful, early testament as to why we loved Jackson, and why – if we pay real close attention – we realize the screaming may never have stopped.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5