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Human Nature -- Motown with a Down Under twist

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012

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If the members of Human Nature had a dollar for every time someone asked them what four Australian guys are doing singing Motown songs ... well, suffice to say they wouldn’t be wanting for pocket change.

But if the notion of dancing in the streets Down Under seems at all odd, the group’s Andrew Tierney promises that “for us, it was natural.”

“As a young group, you want to find other groups that might inspire you,” says Tierney, 37, who founded the quartet during the late ’80s in suburban Sydney with his younger brother, Michael, and high school friends Toby Allen and Phil Burton. Known then as the 4 Trax, the quartet garnered attention with their version of the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” — the song that actually inspired Tierney to form a group in the first place after he heard it in the film “Back to the Future.”

After that, he recalls, “a lot of people were taking notice of us and were saying, ‘You guys should go listen to the great groups of Motown for inspiration.’ Our parents had played that music when we were growing up, but having (other people) steer us that way was more the lightbulb moment ... as far as our connection to Motown.

“So we started listening to the music and right away we had this huge love for the Motown groups. And this is where it’s led us.”

“This” for Human Nature is three albums of Motown songs released in the band’s homeland between 2005-2007. The third, “Get Ready,” introduced the group to Motown stalwart Smokey Robinson, who was so taken with Human Nature that he not only performed with the quartet on Australian TV but also helped the group get a monthlong engagement at Atlantic City’s Tropicana Casino in 2008 and, the following year, a standing spot at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas that continues to this day. The Imperial has renamed its venue the Human Nature Theatre, and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman declared a Human Nature Day on May 11.

The Vegas success also led to a PBS special, “Human Nature Sings Motown with Special Guest Smokey Robinson,” in December, and to “The Motown Record,” which was released in the U.S. on March 6.

“They’re the bomb group, they really are,” Robinson, who also brought Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., to hear the group, says of Human Nature. “It’s an incredible feeling because you don’t think about your music being all over the world like that, you know? And then when I see young people like that in different countries who have grown up on the Motown music and who love it so much that they incorporated it into their own musical thing, it’s wonderful. And it’s great to see how far they’re taking it.”

Tierney, meanwhile, says Robinson’s interest has further inspired the group.

“This friendship and bond has really developed with him, which is amazing for us because we love his music and respect him so much,” Tierney explains. “He said, ‘I want to help you in whatever way I can.’ He said we remind him of the friendship he had with the Miracles. This friendship and ambassadorship has been unreal.”

Despite Motown’s influence and inspiration, however, it wasn’t Human Nature’s initial musical course.

The group landed its Australian recording deal singing the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” The quartet then released four initial albums Down Under, chalking up hits that included collaborations with Savage Garden’s Darren Hayes and covers of songs by Barry Gibb and Barbra Streisand, the Bangles and Mr. Big. The group also sang the Australian national anthem at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, opened for Michael Jackson and Celine Dion and appeared in a musical version of “Happy Days” and an orchestral tour of Beatles songs.

“We just felt we had to get a record deal and try and make a name for ourselves,” Tierney explains. “We started writing our own songs and got the record deal and started releasing our own music. It was hugely successful in Australia, and we got some great opportunities there — and throughout Europe as well.”

But, he adds, the concerts would always include Motown material. “We’d explain to people that this is how we started, that we wanted to be like those groups,” Tierney says. “We were always referencing Motown, and at some point we thought, ‘Why don’t we do a record of all the songs we love?’ “

Human Nature hasn’t forsaken other music, however. The group’s 2010 release, “Vegas: Songs From Sin City,” features material by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Barry Manilow and other Las Vegas stalwarts.

Moving forward, Tierney predicts the group will start making original material — Robinson and other Motown alumni such as Lamont Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland have offered to write for the group — though he promises that Motown will always be in the mix.

“Doing Motown has changed us a lot,” Tierney explains. “The journey we’ve gone on with the Motown music made us a better group and a more unique group. I think for longevity we’d like to bring back some original music and see how that’s received as well, but I’d like to keep some part of (Motown) in what we do, always.”

Human Nature: The Motown Show Presented by Smokey Robinson begins its U.S. tour at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 24, at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com.

Web Site: www.broadwayindetroit.com

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