Maureen Boyle is enticed by childhood memories, but leaves wishing 'they didn't have to do this anymore'
The date is inauspicious. The fact that I can’t give away two spare tickets does not bode well.
The fact that the young waitress in the café beforehand simply looks blank when we rather excitedly inform her where we're going isn't good either: my friend tells her that she might have been conceived to them – then amends that to apply to her mother’s conception.
And then to walk into a half-full Waterfront Hall in Belfast is finally to admit that something is wrong. This is the first concert in the Osmond's American Jukebox tour, but we might in fact be in Butlins circa 1975. And indeed, sadly, when I look at the tour dates on their website, it's apparent that the Osmonds will in fact play Butlins, Bognor on September 29.
This is a group I loved as a child. When they came to Britain on a tour in 1973, I was in Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry~Londonderry with pneumonia, after my first term in secondary school, and a fellow patient ripped up a photo of them in disgust.
I was reduced to trying to catch glimpses of the news coverage on Nationwide every evening on the hospital television. I never did get to see them play live. They came to Belfast with their 50th anniversary tour in May 2008, and I didn’t see them then either, and that was the whole group.
In this tour it is just three Osmonds: Merrill, who was always their key vocalist and now looks like a distinguished sheriff in an old Western; Jay, who was next in age to Donny and the drummer, and who I had liked as the gangly teenager, now looking like an Hispanic used-car salesman and carrying a lot of weight; and finally Jimmy, the one we all hated as a child, the annoying little brother who has matured into a good performer and reality TV personality.
The sad thing is that they can still sing, and in the parts of the concert where they sing their own songs – 'The Proud One', 'Proud Mary', 'Down by the Lazy River', 'Love me for a Reason' – the show suddenly comes alive. The pity is that those moments are few.
In the main they sing covers of popular songs from ‘The American Songbook’, and although they can do this competently, it does lead to moments of rather surreal imitation – the Osmonds do Abba, the Osmonds do the Bee Gees and perhaps most surreal of all, given their parallel trajectory as child stars, the Osmonds do the Jackson 5.
One portion of the show is on singing brothers, which takes in the Everlys and others. But you just want them to get to the Osmond brothers.
The effect of awful tack and even, at times, slight creepiness, is leant weight by three attendant dancing- girls-cum-backing singers who appear in tawdry, tasteless costumes, and at times hang off them in the sleaziest of ways. It is a far cry from their youthful images as clean-cut and energetic. The corn-pone humour, though, was there, even at the height of their fame.
The subtitle of the Jukebox tour is ‘A little bit country, a little bit rock n’ roll’, which was the line sung by Donny and Marie in their TV shows, which we cringed at, even as adoring teenagers, for their goofy costumes, false wigs and teeth and terrible humour.
And at one stage during this concert, the three middle-aged men emerge wearing black caps and leathers, looking like they have wandered into the Waterfront on their way to The Kremlin. It is all rather sad.
There are moments of more dignity that suggest how it might have been. They pay tribute to their beginnings on the Andy Williams Show and to absent family/band members: Wayne, who has been ill for many years and survived a cancerous brain tumour and stroke; Alan who suffers from multiple sclerosis and no longer performs; and their older deaf brothers, Tom and Virl, who did not usually perform with the group.
They sing a new song, 'I Can’t Get There Without You', which sounds good, and some of their original brilliance is clear when they perform 'Auctioneer’s Song', a three-part barbershop that they learned for the Andy Williams Show over 50 years ago – but somehow, seeing the well-produced visuals behind them, only to make us more aware of that performance as the past and something lost.
It is easy to sneer at the Osmonds, but they are talented singers and musicians. I still think The Plan – a concept album before the term became well-known, perhaps incongruously written on their Mormon faith – is fascinating, as is the fact that the little town in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah that they come from is called Provo – a tantalising cultural echo if you grew up in Strabane in the 1970s.
And I have to confess that at the end of this Belfast show, I do what I’ve never done at a concert before and go up to the stage to shake Merrill’s hand – close-up it seems, when he bows down, that he is exhausted and in pain. This concert reminds me why I had loved the Osmonds as a child, but also makes me wish they didn’t have to do this any more.
Visit the Waterfront Hall website for information on upcoming concerts.