For those that don’t know, I write music reviews for a couple of publications in the San Francisco Bay Area. My favorite is a San Francisco music blog called Spinning Platters, and for several years the editors and I have been working to try to set up some kind of interview piece with the New Kids. While it hasn’t happened yet, I did finally get to properly cover one of their shows as only a real fan can when The Package Tour came through San Jose, Ca. Here is that review in its entirety, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed being able to write it!
In the little world that exists between the New Kids on the Block and their fans, I’m what’s affectionately referred to as a “BH:” a Blockhead. I don’t say this with any level of chagrin or irony, and there’s nothing I feel guilty about in the pleasure I take from this group. The fact of the matter is, I’ve loved them for more than 25 years, and at this point, I don’t feel the need to explain or justify that to anyone who doesn’t get it. (And honestly, why do we feel the need to ridicule each other for something that brings us joy?) If anybody is experiencing anything like the fun I have with the NKOTB, I would be a fool to try to tear it down – that’s the kind of thing I think we ought to seek out and celebrate! Which is exactly what I did, when The Package Tour (NKOTB, Boyz II Men, and 98°) pulled up to HP Pavilion last night in San Jose.
When the time came for the show to begin, it started right on time. Because I had managed to snag myself a front row seat, I had a wristband that allowed me to stand against the barricade with the other lucky girls for the duration of the show. When the lights went down, a video preceded BIIM’s entrance, touting their impressive career achievements. They came out and went straight for the kill with the beautiful “On Bended Knee.” The first thing I noticed is that, while they don’t have the spine-tingling four-part harmony that they once did (before bassist Michael left the group in 2003), they sound unbelievably fantastic for a three-man group! WOW, do they still have it! After milking the end of the first song, they went right into “Water Runs Dry,” during which three large vases full of long-stemmed red roses were lifted to various parts of the stage where they’d be accessible for Nate, Shawn & Wanya to hand out to girls in the crowd, which they did during “I’ll Make Love to You,” up next. The song closed with the first of the night’s confetti explosions.
Humbly, Shawn addressed the crowd, “in case you’ve never heard of us… in case you’ve never seen us live… ladies and gentlemen, San Jose, we are Boyz II Men! On behalf of the fellas,” he continued, “I just want to say that you show the most love out of so many places, and we appreciate you so!” He went on to introduce Wanya, who in turn introduced Nate, explaining that Boyz II Men was his brainchild. Nate, in his sexy deep voice, announced Shawn as “last but not least, the smoothest falsetto,” and then replaced his Philadelphia hat with a Niners hat, much to the audience’s approval. “If you know the words, please sing along! If not… we’ll sing it to you.” And so they began “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” which was every bit as emotional and brilliant last night as it was the first time I heard it on the radio back in 1991 or ’92. They closed it in true BIIM style: a capella, with a chill-inducing harmony, and then began “End of the Road,” which concluded with the crowd singing most of the chorus at an impressive volume. “Sounds like you remember!!!” Shawn shouted excitedly, before asking if everyone was “ready to party?!” They closed their set with “Motownphilly,” settling any question of whether or not they still had any dance moves: they definitely do. It was fun to watch them get down. I hadn’t seem them together in at least a decade, and while I miss Michael, I thoroughly enjoyed their entire short set.
With no need to wait, 98° began their set immediately when Boyz II Men’s had concluded. Their logo and random pictures flashed up on the jumbo-tron along with the creepy soundbite of Poltergeist II’s little girl declaring “they’re baaaa-aaack!” I thought that was a strange choice, but perhaps no one asked me? Their set began with “Heat it Up,” which I suppose was appropriate, but the spark never quite got ignited for me. Immediately I began shaking my head to corny lyrics (“baby let me love you to the 98th degree…”), cheesy song intros/segues, and choreography I just couldn’t understand: I literally wondered time & again if they hadn’t just dusted off the exact same dance moves from their last headlining tour & called it good? And let me be clear: I really did give them a chance; I gave them the benefit of the doubt when girls sitting near me (who’d seen the show in LA and/or Vegas) declared they’d be having dinner during this set rather than watching it. I know that while they may not be for me, these dudes can SING, and so I kept my feet firmly planted and waited to see for myself.
The next song, “Girls’ Night Out,” was more of the same, and then Nick declared that it was time to take us back to the first song they’d ever recorded on Motown Records, adding, “if you know the words, sing along!” The song was “Invisible Man,” and certainly the one I liked best of the evening. As they interacted with the fans in the crowd, I had to laugh when a girl near me held up a sign that read: “don’t be a douche, hug me!” and Drew laughed, too, as he acknowledged the request. But then I noticed what was so strange about this set to me: they have choreography to their ballads! I don’t understand: if you’re great singers (which they are), just sing! Why all these silly dance moves if no one’s an especially great dancer? I know that in the 90s it was sort of a requisite that you at least try, but this is a new day…or maybe it’s me? I just want them to do what they’re good at, and frankly, I don’t need all the extra ridiculousness. I’d have appreciated them so much more if it had been a simple, stripped-down set of them showing off their amazing singing chops. Without much more. Alas, they seem to embrace all that is considered cheesy in a boyband. Oh well. Bands I like certainly aren’t for everyone, either. And at least 98° sound good, so they got that goin’ for ’em…
After “The Hardest Thing,” the group paused to soak in all the sounds of the screaming girls around them. I could only see the faces of three of the four guys, but they certainly looked pretty pleased with themselves. I can’t really blame them, I guess, but maybe that’s the difference between these guys and BIIM/NKOTB: that the others are such seasoned vets that maybe they never thought they’d get to do it again on this level, and so they’re not taking it for granted, and just enjoying every second without taking it too seriously? Anyway, a song called “Microphone” was next, followed by one of the guys declaring that it was getting “a little warm up here,” at which point they all stripped off their button-down shirts and strutted around in tank tops so that they could “finish the show in style.” One of them asked the crowd how many of them had been fans since 1997, and there was a respectable response from the crowd. “Ballads are what we like to sing, and sometimes we need a little extra inspiration…” At that point, four girls were plucked from the audience to sit on stools onstage and be serenaded. The best part was definitely the the girl who was seated nearest Jeff didn’t even try to keep her hands off him – she was a ham, and I appreciate the entertainment she brought to the number, which was “My Everything.” The next song was “back to one of our classics, known all over the planet,” a wedding song, yadda yadda yadda, was dedicated to a sexy someone or other: “I Do (Cherish You).”
“San Jose, we only have one night – una noche! – together! Are you ready to make it count?” Would you be surprised that this would lead into “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)?” Nope, I wasn’t either. But as Drew came toward my side of the stage, I discovered a new appreciation for Dancing with the Stars: man, can he move his hips! I hadn’t noticed until the moment, and I wasn’t mad at him at all! Next up, one of the guys explained that the video to the next song was shot here (“or near here”), and again that we should “sing along if you know the words,” because “tonight, this is all because of you.” Surprise again: the song was “Because of You!” As my mind wandered, enjoying the lovely harmonies and trying not to type the word “barf” in my notes re: their cheesy choreography, I noticed that Nick’s 98° tattoo (in the center of the sun on his arm) has been covered up. Interesting. Anyway, this concluded their set, and I found myself wishing for one of their lesser-known songs, especially their killer cover of “She’s Out of My Life.” These dudes can really sing, and as it turns out, that’s all I really wanted them to do. I could have done without the rest of that whole “show,” but it appears that others do enjoy that sort of thing, so who am I to judge?
And after a brief break, it was finally time for the main event. Before they took the stage, Donnie Wahlberg’s voice filled the room, asking the audience to direct our attention the stage and swear an oath, essentially that we’d spend the next two hours having the time of our lives, leaving drama, worries, and fears behind. He wanted us to celebrate, because we had worked hard, earned, and deserved the night. “Together,” he said, “we own tonight. Now let’s get this damn thing started!” With that began the fog, a light show, and lots of screaming. After a little more suspense, the New Kids finally appeared at the far end of the intricately-designed stage, dressed all in black & white, opening the show (appropriately) with “We Own Tonight,” the first track from their latest album, 10. After crossing the catwalk to the main part of the stage, a rotating pedestal portion emerged, hefting all of them up closer to the fans in the higher levels of the arena. Next came one of the album’s most rock-infused tunes (and therefore one of my favorites), the equally appropriate show-opener “Block Party,” and it was heaven. (“Welcome to the block party, we ain’t leavin’ out nobody, we about to get it started, it’s a block party, block party.” Try as you might to resist, this little ear worm gets in your head and stays there. I love this song, and of course it’s even more fun live!) If nothing else, it proves that the members of the New Kids on the Block have some diverse musical tastes of their own: someone enjoys a little rock now & then, just like me.
Next came “Summertime,” arguably the biggest hit of their first reunion record, The Block, which ended with a great pyro finale. An old favorite, “The Right Stuff,” followed by lots of pelvic thrusting, was next, and then each guy stepped into a smaller pedestal stage of his own, snapped on a seat belt of sorts, and was lifted high up into the air for “The Whisper.” Jon Knight, standing high above me, looked absolutely petrified. I hope he wasn’t. Returning back to safer ground, the ended the song with a little of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” before the left the stage for a costume change as five mic stands were placed on the main stage. Before they returned, the mic stands lit up and began to revolve on the larger platform; the group emerged in dashing, matching suits for the gorgeous new fan-favorite ballad, “Survive You,” on which each guy has a solo part. They donned debonair hats for “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” and “Valentine Girl,” which in turn led into “If You Go Away,” featuring Jordan Knight’s best vocals of the night – at least so far. What a voice that guy has! Following it up with “Please Don’t Go Girl,” Joe McIntyre ditched his hat and jacket and rolled up his sleeves, rising solo on the center pedestal stage. The performance was flawless, and as is his wont, he milked the ending for all it was worth: I started to wonder if someone might give him an Academy award at some point, laughing especially when he added “it’s been 25 years!” and pretended to cry. Eventually, though, he wrapped it up to raucous fanfare – naturally.
Addressing the crowd, Donnie said that he felt “like I can keep it real with you. Listen. We’ve been all over the country in the last month…and really the last five years.” He admitted to telling every city that they’re the loudest, and “quite frankly I’ve been dishonest to 99% of them. It always comes down to two cities,” he explained. “Cleveland…” (boos from the crowd). “And San Jose!” (Screaming.) They were in Cleveland just a few weeks ago, he continued, amid more booing. “They were the loudest crowd of the entire tour. UNTIL TONIGHT, here!” The group paused for a moment to soak in the volume of the screaming and then asked if we were ready to party. (Author’s note: I know bands do that. I know they lie & tell each city it’s their fave/they’re the loudest. But I know of Cleveland’s reputation, and that of the Bay Area, at least among the NKOTB. I think this was actually the truth. Sorry, other cities…)
Addictive rock-tinged single “Remix” came next, followed by another quick costume stage and the appearance of stools on the stage, while the members of the back-up band came out to the edges of the stage, indicating the acoustic part of the set. It started with “Single,” during which Donnie made the mistake of leaning down into the crowd to kiss a fan – who promptly stuck her tongue down his throat as a camera projected it onto the jumbo-tron for all to see. When he resurfaced, he shook his head at the camera, mouthing “what the fuck!?” I’m not sure he was really too bothered, though.
Apparently, something made the New Kids “feel romantic,” so the crowd was invited to sing along if we knew the words. First came “Baby I Believe in You,” then a little of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” (taking lifelong fans like myself way back into the group’s archives), and then Jordan slayed a cover version of Force M.D.’s “Tender Love” before taking us “back to 2008, to the song that brought” them “back together,” which was the catchy “Click Click Click.” Joe’s solo moment came next as he crushed George Michael’s “Faith,” and Jordan followed suit with a cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” during which he treated the audience to a little waist-up strip-tease. Have you seen these guys lately? Holy hell, they’re hotter in their 40s than they were 25 years ago! Next, they got the crowd to sing a little of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” as a lead-in to “Dirty Dancing.” Jordan’s face when the girls shout-sang “I am getting so hot, I wanna take my clothes off” up at him was priceless: he made a face and gestured as if to ask what they were waiting for. Everyone near me laughed; he’s one of those people who just belongs on stage. The group took a break to introduce the members of their band, and then the stage went dark for another quick costume change. They reemerged wearing black t-shirts with gold foil designs on them that spelled out “NKOTB” – each guy wearing a different letter,” beginning “Step by Step” as they returned to the main stage and throwing in a little of Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s “Push it” into the mix for good measure with a great little dance solo from the younger Mr. Knight.
When all the group began to retreat toward the back section of the stage, Donnie hesitated & stayed on the main rotating stage alone for “Cover Girl”, ending it by literally tearing off his tank top. He wiped all the sweat off of himself and threw it out to screaming girls before running back to the others. “Let’s get crazy!” someone shouted as they began “Games” back on the mainstage, complete with a solo break-dancing number by Danny Wood. Jordan and Donnie each took a camera from the crew and wandered around the stage, filming the crowd while the house lights came up a little so they could see everyone dancing to Icona Pop’s “I Love it.” But this is California, and when they’re not touring, several of the guys live here, at least part-time. One song gave way to another as they blasted 2Pac’s “California Love” for us to jam to. Let me tell you: that’s how you have a good time. We were dancing, they were dancing and filming us, those of us who knew the words (apparently I was the only one around me who knew more than the chorus) were singing along & just having a great time. The guys obliged the screaming crowd during the “shake it, Cali” parts of the song, and I added “I finally know what the expression ‘amaze balls’ is meant to convey” to my notes. Yeah.
Finally, Joe addressed the crowd, saying, “California, you’ve been showin’ us love for a long time. A loooooooonnng time. 25 years! The only way to repay you is to figure out how to do it for another 25 years!” When the screaming response had died down, he went on to say that a lot has happened in the past 25 years, at which point his 5-year-old son, Griffin, appeared beside him on-stage. He’s even cuter than his daddy, and definitely a star in the making, so the guys helped him begin “Tonight” before each disappearing out into different corners of the crowd to reach as many fans as they could. Before the song wrapped, I smiled as I watched Jon stop what he was doing and motion a girl forward who was apparently desperate for an autograph. He bent down to acknowledge without missing a beat: something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen mid-show. The lights went out again, and another quick change took place off stage.
When the lights came back up, they were tinted purple and there was lots of fog. Jordan’s vocal ad-libbing allowed the rest of the guys a few minutes before they returned to the stage, and as has become typical, his intro to “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” was a heartfelt dedication to “each and every one of you for loving us for 25 years. We will be loving you forever!” As he began the song, he remained alone on the stage – it wasn’t until they were due to help sing on the chorus that the others finally materialized again, and much to my dismay, Donnie was once again fully dressed. The finale was dramatic and full of beautiful, outrageous falsetto and fireworks. Jordan basked in it, and each of the others deferred the applause to him, allowing him his moment to ham it up, blowing kisses to the crowd as he shook his head with an “aw, shucks” look on his face.
Donnie introduced each member of the group before going on, “we say thank you every day. You say thank you every day. Is thank you even a good enough thing to say anymore?” He gave a little pep talk (“W.o.W.” as they’re known among fans, his words of wisdom, are a hallmark for Mr. Wahlberg, and he’s brilliant with them), concluding with “just keep on going and don’t ever give up on what it is you wanna do. That’s it.” Then he said, “I think it’s time we take a minute and consummate our relationship.” Of course the audience went crazy, and I noticed Joe reaching for his belt buckle, which cracked me up. “I think it’s time that Boston and California become one. Are y’all ready?!” And with that, they put on their sparkly Red Sox jerseys (each with “617” and “Boston Strong” on the back in remembrance of the Boston Marathon bombing) and began “Hangin’ Tough” with an intro of Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” and the now-typical “We Will Rock You” section in the middle. As it ended with confetti, bows, thank yous and goodbyes, I expected an encore. Sadly, there wasn’t one. There is, however, a silver lining: there’s another show, this Friday night back at HP Pavilion in San Jose, and I get to do it all over again. I’ll see you there? Don’t take my word for it. Take my advice instead, don’t miss it!