Guided by a thumping bass line from their backing band, the Jackson brothers strut forward to a row of four microphones, thrusting their pelvises along the way, before launching into "Can't Let Her Get Away," a song their superstar sibling released on his "Dangerous" album. If they had afros and matching powder blue suits, it might feel like 1977 again.
It doesn't. They're casually sporting sunglasses, workout gear and a few more pounds than when they, along with the future King of Pop, were simply known as the Jackson 5. (Also, "Can't Let Her Get Away" was released in 1991 after the group fizzled out.)
Nearly three years since Michael died while preparing for his comeback tour, four of his brothers — Marlon, Jermaine, Tito and Jackie — are set for their own return to the stage as The Jacksons. It hasn't been easy.
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"The brothers don't know this, but I've broken down several times and cried during rehearsals," said Jermaine during a recent rehearsal break on a soundstage in Burbank, Calif. "I'm so used to Michael being on the right and then Marlon, Jackie, on and on. It's just something we never get used to."
The brothers are launching their "Unity" tour on Wednesday, five days ahead of the third anniversary of Michael's death from an overdose of the anesthetic propofol on June 25, 2009.
"For me, this cycle that comes around every year — this day, that day — that doesn't affect me because it affects me every day," said Marlon. "When that day comes around, it's the same. You learn to live with it. I still wake up sometimes and go, 'Jeez. I can't believe my brother's not here.'"
Following Michael's death, the four brothers appeared in the A&E reality series "The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty," which chronicled their loss and attempt to stage a comeback before their brother died.
Jermaine said the brothers have wanted to reunite on their own for years, but after Michael's passing, they needed time to heal — and the tour is another step in that process. They're rearranged their classics to suit their voices, and Jermaine said the group plans to pay tribute to Michael during their shows with a slideshow and medley that will conclude with the tune "Gone Too Soon."
"There's certain songs that make you feel the sorrow," said Tito. "Then again, there are other songs that bring so much joy and happiness, such as 'ABC' and 'I Want You Back' and the up-tempo stuff like 'This Place Hotel.' I just imagine how he used to walk and spin and do all these things. You can feel his presence here."
The Jacksons' tour kicks off at Rama Casino in Ontario, Canada, and is scheduled to end July 29 at the Snoqualmie Casino Amphitheater in Snoqualmie, Wash. Other stops include Detroit's Fox Theatre, Los Angeles' Greek Theatre and the Harlem's sold-out Apollo Theatre, where the Jackson 5 won an amateur night in 1969 before rocketing to fame.
Michael later forged unprecedented success as a solo artist. His superstardom was unrivaled, and his brothers couldn't capture similar acclaim or sales with their solo projects or last studio album, 1989's mostly Michael-less "2300 Jackson Street," but their legacy as a group has remained unchanged. The Jackson 5 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
While various combinations of the brothers have reunited to perform over the years, including at last year's "Michael Forever" tribute concert in Wales, "Unity" will mark the first time the brothers have toured together since their final "Victory" outing in 1984. (Marlon said Randy, who officially joined The Jacksons in 1975, elected not to join the tour but noted that the youngest Jackson brother was welcome at any time.)
"We have a certain magic," said Jackie. "Once we get out here and run it down a couple times, it comes back to you. I'm not (moving) like I used to, but we still got it."
Will the fans think so — and will they turn out to see The Jacksons, whose ages now range from 55 to 61, perform their hits without Michael.
Last year, Cirque du Soleil launched "Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour" in Las Vegas. The show featuring dancers and acrobatic acts performing routines set to M.J. tunes has been among the top touring acts this year, and "Immortal" will return to Vegas for a residency at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino.
However, Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of concert industry trade publication Pollstar, doesn't believe The Jacksons will achieve similar success with their smaller endeavor.
"The Jacksons were really all about Michael," said Bongiovanni. "The Cirque du Soleil show was successful because it was Cirque du Soleil and Michael's music. I don't know if that portends much for the remaining brothers and their ability to generate enthusiasm for ticket sales."
The brothers are undaunted, hoping to release an album of new music then go back out on tour.
"It's like riding a bike," said Marlon. "You never forget, but you do need to tweak a few things."