An evening of Motown on Saturday night was like a time warp, bringing the packed audience at Outerland back to the 1950s and 1960s, when bands and artists like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five were topping charts and forever changing the face - and soul - of American music.
The performance was the second night of the three-night music festival Vineyard Vibes, an annual tradition brought to the Island by the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the world's premier college for the study of contemporary music. Now in its sixth year, Vineyard Vibes has become a fixture and a tradition on the Island in its own right - and each year the festival is honed for fresh appeal.
This year was an outstanding three-day musical immersion that began with Afro-Cuban jazz on Friday night at the Outerland nightclub, moved into the Motown mode on Saturday night at Outerland, and concluded on Sunday with the Berklee College Reverence Gospel Ensemble at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Proceeds from this year's festival will go toward a special musical therapy program on the Vineyard this winter.
On Saturday evening it was a rare treat to hear Motown, with its pervasive appeal across age, race and gender, not blasted from a car radio tuned to the oldies station, but performed live by five sets of powerful lungs belonging to Berklee students. Even their clothing was nostalgic, with sparkling black gowns on some of the young women and a brown argyle sweater on the one male vocalist.
The musicians - led by Berklee professor Ken Zambello on bass - were also Berklee students, including a guitarist, two keyboardists, a drummer, a trombonist, a tenor saxophonist and a trumpeter.
The anticipated guest star of the evening was Jennifer Holliday, the Tony and Grammy award winning singer and performer, known for her role in the original Broadway run of Dreamgirls, which is based on the story of The Supremes.
Ms. Holliday stole the show on Saturday, but she did not steal the spotlight - the evening belonged without question to the as-yet-unknown stars. It was not hard to envision the singers as famous. Ablaze with charisma, the students were expressive and entertaining, even when singing back-up.
The students were all winners of the Singers Showcase competition within the past two years at Berklee. The competition filters out the top vocalists from about 100 applicants each semester - who are nearly all vocal majors at the college.
In addition to performing a couple of solos, Ms. Holliday related historical and background information between songs - like the origin of the group or song, or landmarks they represented, such as the Jackson Five becoming the first black teen idols. She elicited plenty of laughs with her impromptu style.
She also introduced the vocalists before their solos.
"Is this the correct thing on the card?" Ms. Holliday asked only half-joking about the note card describing Jessica Wolfe, a Berklee senior from Los Angeles. Ms. Holliday expressed shock that a young woman so talented vocally was majoring in music business.
The geographically diverse singers also included Kwatice Ezell from New Orleans, La., Nadine Ford from Copague, N.Y., Tiwa Savage from Nigeria and England, and Peyton Haley from Desoto, Tex.
"I don't know, Peyton, you might be too young for me to be your girl," Ms. Holliday told him teasingly after he performed My Girl by The Temptations.
Although most of the audience was seated in chairs that filled a large portion of the dance floor, dance fever broke a few times and dancers stormed the sliver of available dance floor in front of the stage.
Toward the end of the evening, Berklee president Roger H. Brown presented a plaque to Ms. Holliday, who is Berklee's first artist in residence.
Ms. Holliday received an honorary doctor of music degree from Berklee in 2000, where for the previous two years she had been a keynote speaker at Berklee's annual depression awareness event.
"What you may not know is she recovered from a very, very difficult battle with clinical depression," Mr. Brown told the audience as he presented the plaque. "Not only is she an amazing performer, an amazing singer, but she's an amazing inspiration to me and many musicians."
The last song of the night - an encore performance - was I Heard It through the Grapevine, the 1968 hit sung by Marvin Gaye. With Ms. Holliday and Ms. Ford in the lead, the vocals hit a new level, and even the audience members in chairs got up to give the singers a standing ovation.