Photo: Chad Fahnestock
Boyz II Men, Stevie B and Break EFX
Friday, November 28, 2008
Better than: Listening to the recorded soundtrack from the ten-year high school reunion of any graduating class from the 1990s.
The reactions varied wildly. When I told people that I was covering the Boyz II Men show at the Ogden Theater, responses ranged from the contemptuous to the incredulous. But it seemed that for every single person who asked me how I got stuck with the gig, five more female friends would offer fond memories.
One recalled their first live concert, a Boyz II Men show she'd attended with her father as a child. A second summoned memories of a grade school dance routine to "Motown Philly." A third had more recent memories from a stadium concert in North Carolina less than ten years ago.
Friday's show effectively tapped into this widespread nostalgia. The capacity crowd was the most diverse I've seen for any show within the past year, and it seemed that nearly every racial, social, economic and age group was represented in the teeming audience.
Their overwhelming enthusiasm proved infectious, and what started as a novelty assignment quickly morphed into something more enjoyable.
I was accompanied by the friend who'd seen the North Carolina show, and the ambience alone was enough to transport us both to moments from middle school and high school dances, graduation ceremonies and Lethal Weapon movies.
But the fun was in more than the mere kitsch of the show. As downright adolescent and undeniably cheesy as the performances proved at points, they still boasted an impressive degree of showmanship and musicianship. What's more, Boyz II Men's set yielded some unexpected moments, along with the expected radio hits. With songs and dances that reached back to the roots of the soul and R&B genres, the band delivered a multi-layered and impressive performance.
Photo: Chad Fahnestock
The Jingle Ball, as it was imaginatively dubbed by sponsor radio station The Party, started with a throwback that would set the nostalgic tone for the rest of the evening. Break dance crew Break EFX performed impossible acrobatic feats, as its nine troupe members hoisted themselves on one hand and spun their bodies at impressive speeds at several moments during their set.
The troupe's soundtrack played like a best of the '90s hip-hop mix, a touch that helped spark memories from my awkward middle school days. LL Cool J's "Mamma Said Knock You Out," House of Pain's "Jump Around" and Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" all figured into the troupe's set. Barring the minor missteps (the DJ's sound well silent for a good 15 seconds at one point), the troupe set an appropriate tone for the two live bands that followed.
Photo: Chad Fahnestock
Freestyle forebear Stevie B delivered a grandiose, epic entrance. Draped in a hoodie/suitcoat combo, Stevie B immediately broke into his set of plaintive, velvety crooning. Backed by a trio of two synthesizer players and a drummer, Stevie B delivered a set largely composed of his well-known dance tunes from the late '80s.
The performances of songs like "Dreamin' of Love," "I Wanna Be the One," "Dream About You" and "Spring Love (Come Back to Me)" came off like a surreal '80s video incarnate. As the backup band, which comprised three, stern-looking Hawaiian musicians in sunglasses, laid down syncopated beats straight out of a John Hughes movie, Stevie B sang directly to the middle-aged women who knew every line. The multiple moments of ear-splitting feedback from the synths during the sets failed to dim the enthusiasm from the massive crowd.
Stevie B gave asides that seemed arrogant at certain moments, and just plain odd at others. He bragged about his workout routine and his ability to do crunches. He mentioned a new Stevie B movie bound for release next year. He threatened to end the set several times, only to reappear from the shadows of the rear stage to cheers from the audience.
It was just plain bizarre at points, but Stevie B's pop-idol dynamic helped warm the stage for the main act.
Photo: Chad Fahnestock
Boyz II Men took to a stage empty of instruments or musicians. Nathan Morris, Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris, the three remaining members of the band (Michael McCory left in 2003) sang along to a pre-recorded rhythm track for the performance, a touch that seemed at first to ape karaoke a bit too much. As the trio progressed in their set, however, the absence of a band seemed appropriate - the vocal group played off the sheer power of their voices. Whatever hesitations I had in terms of the band's style, the band's vocal strength and range made an impression. I soon was dancing along with the rest of the crowd.
The early part of the set hit a number of band's expected hits. They opened with an abbreviated version of "Motown Philly," progressed quickly to "On Bended Knee" and performed "4 Seasons of Loneliness" seated on stools. The crowd obviously hadn't attended for the band's deep tracks. The nostalgia was almost palpable as couples danced as they probably had at a prom 10 years ago and 30-year old men broke out dusty hip-hop moves.
For all the power of '90s nostalgia, it was the group's set of old Motown covers that fully melted my snootiness. The band's renditions of Smoky Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," the Temptations' "Just My Imagination," Barrett Strong's "Money," the Four Tops' "Same Old Song" and "Reach Out I'll Be There" included choreography and vocal touches straight from the original performances.
The five Motown classics preceded more Boyz II Men radio hits, which were complemented by well-honed theatrics. During "I'll Make Love to You," the band handed out roses to audience members, and the performance of "A Song for Mama" saw Shawn Stockman encouraging everyone to get out their cell phones and call their mothers. Similarly, the first set's finale, "End of the Road," spurred the band to strip off their suit coats and strut about in their button-up shirts.
As seemingly hackneyed as such antics may sound, they worked. Males and females alike clambered to receive the roses and shake the band members' hands. The band's sole encore song, a fuller rendition of "Motown Philly" stirred up the masses even more.
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As we shuffled through the Ogden to reach the exit and find the car in the newly fallen snow, my friend announced her intention to start a new aural diet of old-school, '90s R&B. The show had inspired her, she declared, to rediscover her pop roots.
After hearing the band's well-executed harmonies, seeing their well-crafted stage antics and revisiting their durable pop tunes, the declaration didn't seem at all silly. Sure, there was plenty to mock at the show, but there was plenty to enjoy as well.
-- A.H. Goldstein
Personal bias: As a soul and Motown addict, Boyz II Men's suites of classic covers helped me connect the band's '90s commercial material to their storied Motown roots.
Random detail: The inclusion of Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison" in Break EFX's opening act seemed appropriate - Michael Bivins helped Boyz II Men secure their first record deal.
By the way: Stevie B claims he can do 1,000 crunches. I sense a challenge.