I went to a boy band concert, and a Chippendales show broke out. This is not a bad thing. Au contraire, my friends. It did, however, leave me wondering what niche “The Package Tour" headliners New Kids On the Block hope to fill in the coming years.
The sold out show in Cincinnati this week earned high praise for the five boys from Boston and their accompanying acts 98 Degrees and Boyz II Men.
Soaring outside temperatures conspired with the rabid energy and collective hot flashes of more than 16,000 women to make US Bank Arena a veritable oven Tuesday night. It’s a credit to the performers that I can still say I enjoyed one of my best concert-going experiences of this or any year. Heat be damned, we doused ourselves with ice cold water and kept on dancing.
Setting the Stage
I’ve been a Boyz II Men advocate from the start. Proof: they were my very first arena concert way back in 1994. They offer the best vocal talent on this playbill, and, clothing intact, relied only on their signature harmonies and a few dozen roses to woo us. Timeless classics "End of the Road," "I'll Make Love To You," "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday," and "On Bended Knee" took us back to our senior proms. Bringing up the tempo, Nate and Wanya Morris and a bespectacled Shawn Stockman dub-stepped through "Motownphilly" to close their half hour set.
Cincy natives 98 Degrees came out next, stripping off a layer with each song. Nick Lachey and his Dancing With the Stars-winning brother Drew front the group, but real Chippendale Jeff Timmons was most impressive, bringing what my friends and I coined a "darker Bradley Cooper vibe" and an impressive voice. "The Hardest Thing" remains my favorite heart-wrenching song of the 90s, and each time I hear it, I'm reminded of the eternal question: "If the guy loves girl #2 enough to write that caliber of song about her, isn't he missing the mark by going back to girl #1?" They also revisited wedding standards "I Do (Cherish You)" and "My Everything." Boyz II Men then came back for an encore, joining 98 Degrees for an inspired and vocally impressive a capella cover of The Five Satins' "In the Still of the Night."
I Pledge: The Story of a Conversion
Thanks to quick and easy set changes, the main event appeared without much of an intermission. Most of the New Kids are fathers now, and it shows. They're punctual.
The house lights dimmed, and the group's founding member and ringmaster Donnie Wahlberg channeled Christian Grey, demanding we take a pledge. I obliged and faithfully promised to spend the next two hours "having the time of my life, leaving all the drama, worries, and fears behind me, celebrating the night like there's no tomorrow, and getting this damn thing started."
This is probably the point where I should confess I was not a button-collecting, poster-hanging, concert-going NKOTB fan their first time around. Sure, I hit the floor to "Hangin' Tough" at middle school dances. I lip-synched to "You Got It (The Right Stuff)" at sleepovers while sporting a side ponytail and imaginary mic. Still, none of the New Kids ever really resonated with me. I liked them. I did not love them. I most certainly did not worship them. I was too busy fangirling over athletes like Michael Jordan and Troy Aikman to be bothered with pop stars sporting rattails.
Twenty-five years since their first breakout hit, I'm finally drinking the NKOTB Kool-Aid, and it ain't CapriSun or Hawaiian Punch. More like an age-appropriate tequila-infused sangria.
Maybe it's because I watch Blue Bloods and appreciate Wahlberg's acting chops (Donnie that is). Or, because I'm an ardent Prince fan and get a kick out of Jordan Knight's falsetto. Or, because Little Joey McIntyre's legal now. Whatever the intangible difference is, I'm hooked.
The Kids are seasoned now. They've grown into their looks and exude a genuine sense of confidence on stage rather than the "I'm covering for the fact that I'm just a kid" bravado of their youth. Their trademark dance steps (including Danny Wood's break-dancing), endearingly sheepish grins (I'm looking at you Jonathan Knight), and puppy love crooning are still there, but the guys now don Sinatra-esque suits and their sound has matured.
The highlight of the night was the shiny new "Remix (I Like The)" with its infections groove, early 60s Temptations styling, and particularly strong lead vocals. The first single off NKOTB's new album 10, "Remix" tells a caterpillar-to-butterfly story with an energy reminiscent of Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby."
Another shining moment featured the heaviest version of "Hangin' Tough" I've ever heard, introduced by Dropkick Murphys' "Shippin' Up to Boston" and mixed with Queen's "We Will Rock You." My group enjoyed the frivolously fun "Summertime" (complete with blow-up beach balls dropped from the rafters) and Joey's impassioned "Please Don't Go Girl." The guys also welcomed back 98 Degrees for a tour-de-force version of "Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)."
Did I mention it was sizzling hot in the arena? Clothes came off as Jordan squeaked out Prince's "Kiss" with a striptease and Donnie danced Magic Mike-style (shirtless and nearly pantsless) to "Cover Girl." I fully expected to hear "It's Raining Men" next with Matthew McConaughey shouting out stage directions. (Can we get him on the next tour?)
We saw four very appreciative demographics in the crowd: the soccer mom contingent reliving old crushes, teens and college girls discovering all the oh-oh-oh-oh-oh's for the first time, a few pockets of giddy gay men, and the original fans who never really left the group even when the group left the group. The affectionately nicknamed Blockheads remain as spirited as ever. The set list was clearly designed to touch every one of these groups, and it worked.
Reviewing 10 With A Few Demands of My Own
NKOTB work hard. They continue to produce new music rather than resting on the laurels of their early-90s stardom. The time these men and their crew are taking away from families and, in some cases, day jobs is not insignificant. That's probably why I was so disappointed when I finally pulled 10 from iTunes the next day, as it seemed slapped together in comparison to the perfectly coordinated stage show.
The concert brilliantly added a rough edge to old and new tracks, but 10 relies too heavily on syrupy, cotton-candy pop and, even worse, kitschy electronica.
We can handle a darker lyric and more resonant beat. "Remix" comes closest to growing up with the audience. "Jealous (Blue)" heads in the right direction, as did The Block's "Big Girl Now" featuring Lady Gaga. To keep moving forward, it would be nice to see these guys show up on their next album with something evoking "Anybody Seen My Baby?"
The all-grown-up 50 Shades of Grey-reading soccer moms are ready for Step 6.
If You Like: Bruno Mars
If you missed this concert -- or want to repeat it -- find The Package Tour continuing around the U.S. all summer. Ohio fans, get thee to The Schottenstein Center in Columbus on August 3. Bring your girlfriends, practice your screams, and show up ready to dance.
Photo of Donnie Wahlberg: Laura Gregg (subject to Creative Commons copyright)