Michael's 'Spirit' Felt on Jacksons Tour

Michael's 'Spirit' Felt on Jacksons Tour

Days Before Anniversary of Icon's Death, Brothers Play Detroit and Talk Live Album/DVD Plans, New Music for 2013

The Jacksons in concert without Michael is a dubious proposition, regardless of the configuration. And it's to the surviving brothers' credit that its just-started Unity Tour doesn't attempt to sidestep that particular 800-pound gorilla.

Michael Jackson: His Life In Photos

Hitting Detroit -- which the group called its "second home" in tribute to the Jackson 5's Motown launching pad -- on Saturday (July 23) for the third show of the tour, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon kept their younger brother front and center, even in his tragic absence two days before the third anniversary of his death. He was on the video screen. He was part of a film-and-photo montage while Jermaine, who took most of the evening's lead vocals in his brother's stead, sang Michael's hit "Gone Too Soon." The Jackson 4 even pointed out where Michael should be standing on stage. And he was, of course, in the songs -- not only those the Jacksons recorded together but also Michael solo favorites such as "Rock With You," "Can't Let Her Get Away," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' " and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."

Paul Barker

"With Michael not being with us anymore, who better to do his material than his brothers?" Tito Jackson told Billboard.com. "The music lives on, and we just feel that he's a part of us. He's on stage. We feel his spirit, and he's there. It's a bittersweet feeling and...kind of strange, but a good strange."

And that's an apt description of what the four Jacksons did with their Unity show at the Fox Theatre, an energetic 90-minute exposition featuring truncated versions of 26 songs that spanned the dozen years between those first Motown hits and Michael's mega-selling "Thriller" album. Gently choreographed and scripted, with a solid nine-piece band whose three backing vocalists handled a lot of the harmonic heavy lifting, it felt more like a high-end nightclub show than the stadium-filling spectacle of 1984's Victory Tour. Nostalgia was the order of the evening, and the combination of warm memories and enduringly sublime tunes made it more of a celebration than a memorial.

Opening with the anthemic "Can You Feel It," the Jacksons -- whose vocals were often curiously quiet in the mix -- played to both the casual fans and the aficionados. Hit fare such as "Blame It on the Boogie," "Lovely One" and "This Place Hotel" was there, as well as a brisk early-Motown medley of "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save," "Never Can Say Goodbye," "All I Do Is Think of You" and "I'll Be There" -- which came off as a bit of kiss-off, especially when more time was devoted to Jermaine's three-song set of solo favorites ("Dynamite," "Let's Get Serious" and "Do What You Do"). But the group also reached into its catalog for "deep cuts" like "Wanna Be Where You Are," "Show You the Way to Go," "Looking Through the Window," "Time Waits For No One," "Push Me Away" and "Man of War," with footage of the four Jacksons playing football on the beach to assure the crowd that things are still, well, brotherly in the Jacksons' world.

And the show-closing "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" remained a party-in-a-song gem whose extended vamp provided a reminder of just how fierce a stage act the Jacksons put on back in the proverbial Day, when the group held its own against Earth, Wind & Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic and the Commodores as a live powerhouse.

And while it celebrates the Jacksons' past, Tito promised that this first leg of the Unity Tour, which wraps July 29 in Snoqualmie, Wash., is just the beginning of the group's new present. He brushed off 11 date cancellations as shows that "actually just didn't fit our plans" but promised that "there's other legs to this tour. We're going to be taking this all over the world." He added that the group plans to document the show for a live album and DVD, while a renewed Jacksons will start recording a new studio album -- the group's first since 1989's "2300 Jackson Street" -- at the end of the year for a 2013 release. "We're starting to gather material now," Tito reported, while he and his brothers "haven't really pursued" producers or collaborators yet. But Jackie Jackson indicated that the quartet will likely take the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am up on his publicly stated interest in working with it.

"This is all feeling really good," Tito said. "I see my brothers all the time at home, and we've always talked about getting together and putting it back together in this fashion. It's been a minute, but this is what we've always hoped for, and it feels good to see it finally happening."

The Jacksons' Unity Tour setlist includes:

Can You Feel It
Blame It on the Boogie
Wanna Be Where You Are
Rock With You
Show Me the Way to Go
Lovely One
Looking Through the Window
Time Waits For No One
Heaven Knows I Love You Girl
Push Me Away
Man of War
Gone Too Soon (Jermaine solo)
Medley: I Want You Back/ABC/The Love You Save/Never Can Say Goodbye/All I Do Is Think of You/I'll Be There
Dynamite (Jermaine solo)
Let's Get Serious (Jermaine solo)
Do What You Do (Jermaine solo)
Can't Let Her Get Away
This Place Hotel
Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough
Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)