The Drifters

No founder members, but plenty of past magic from this humourless foursome

Gene Simmons often talks about having Kiss continue after the original members retire – a touring revue show/tribute act. The likes of Queen and Yes have made similar noises.

Well, The Drifters beat them to it by more than half a century. There hasn’t been an original member in the line-up since Clyde McPhatter quit and sold his share of the name to manager George Treadwell in 1955.

Since then, Treadwell (who died in 1967), his widow Faye (who died last year) and now their daughter Tina have clung fiercely to their registered trademark, hiring and firing scores of Drifters. By this writer’s calculations, some 72 singers have passed through the ranks.

Even now, decades after the R&B icons' last major chart success, there seems to be a total of seven acts out there using various permutations of The Drifters moniker. But the foursome that has packed the Waterfront Hall in Belfast tonight are the official Treadwell line – Michael Williams, Damion Charles, Ryan King and Carlton Powell.

You might have thought there would be limited interest in a group whose current personnel weren’t even born when their predecessors were racking up the hits, but you would be wrong. Whatever Williams, Charles, King and Powell – and the Treadwells – are doing, it works.

Backed by a guitarist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist and saxophone player, the new-look Drifters bring the house down with a two-hour set covering all eras of the band’s back catalogue, from the raw rock ‘n’ roll of the McPhatter years (‘Fools Fall in Love’, ‘Let the Boogie Woogie Roll’), through Ben E King’s stint (‘This Magic Moment’, ‘Under the Boardwalk’, ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’), to the Rudy Lewis-led period (‘On Broadway’, ‘Up on the Roof’).

 

But the biggest songs are perhaps those that were sung by the Drifters’ longest-serving frontman, Johnny Moore. Dancefloor-friendly classics like ‘Come on Over to My Place’, ‘You’re More Than a Number in My Little Red Book’, ‘Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies’ and ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’ prove irresistible to the crowd.

There are running battles between fans and security for the right to dance, with the Waterfront staff eventually admitting defeat and cordoning off designated areas either side of the stage. But some people just aren’t going to be constrained. One woman repeatedly breaks free, and spends most of the gig trying to get others out of their seats to gyrate with her at the front.

As for the new material aired tonight, well, full marks to the band for even bothering, but ‘Do You Dream of Me’ and the Ronan Keating-penned ‘The Whole World’ are unlikely to still be in the setlist by the next tour, never mind in 57 years’ time.

It’s also disappointing that Williams and the rest of the band barely talk to the audience, there is such goodwill towards them. Instead the powers that be elect to play shrill, pre-recorded spiels every 20 minutes or so, giving us a potted history of The Drifters’ achievements in rather stiff Wikipedia speak.

The tapes make much of how, ‘in 2011’, the group are as popular as ever. You could forgive the cheesiness, but not the fact they haven’t got around to updating the recording.

As they finally leave the stage after several standing ovations, the Drifters ignore the fans clamouring to meet them. It leaves a bad taste. Musically, tonight has been a pleasure, but if these men are going to appropriate a legendary band name and make presumably a very good living out of it, they should be forced to stick around until every last hand has been shaken off its wrist.

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