MUSIC REVIEW | New Kids on the Block at the Xcel

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On the surface, one would not think there would be a lot of overlap between fans of Nelly, TLC, and New Kids on the Block. While all three are essentially a sort of danceable ’90s pop, there’s something about the mental image each group conveys that makes it difficult to put them together. Take that gritty, sexy, maybe a little vulgar, club sound from Nelly, mix it up with the smooth almost R&Bish sound of TLC, and throw in the, well, straight pop sound of the prototypical boy band that inspired all those knock-offs in the ’90s, and you’d seem to be on the right track to make about the most indigestible musical smoothie you could ever fix up. Really, the only common thread I can think off for all of this is “songs I had to listen to on the school bus growing up because the driver wouldn’t change the station from KDWB.”

But given the audience reaction throughout the evening, this trio of 90s superstars (for the sake of ease we’ll lump them in there, even though NKOTB had a bit of the ’80s in, too) were a perfect match.

The crowd was electric all night for this eclectic mix of talent, which delivered a very, very good show last night at Xcel Energy Center. When it comes to discussing this show, it seems worthless to try to talk about “performances” or the like. I mean, let’s be honest, talking performance at a pop show of this nature is like writing a Yelp review for a Burger King; yeah, maybe the one down the block usually throws on an extra pickle, but for the most part, you know what you’re getting when you order the double cheeseburger. Folks attending last night’s show knew what they were getting into. They weren’t there for some vocal excellence or to see some sort of musical mastery; this wasn’t a show, it was a spectacle. And the performers involved were well aware of that.

Running with a boxing theme, this “Main Event” tour kicked off “round one” in fight-like fashion, with a ring girl bearing a sign to the stage, followed by the ringing of a bell that brought Nelly to the stage to kick the whole night off, flying right into the classic “EI” and basically just firing off hit after spellcheck-enraging hit, from “Country Grammer” to “Ride Wit Me” and ending, of course, with “Hot In Here.” And this is where the talk about “performing” comes in, because Nelly, rather than just doing his songs, served more as a conductor for the crowd for probably an easy 60% of the set, pushing that sing along, getting folks involved, and just letting the audience roll with it. There was little of performing past him lending his energy to the people there, and that’s exactly what the people wanted. Not to sell Nelly short, of course. Getting folks involved is a tough, tough business. But this crowd was so ready to be part of the spectacle. So eager not to be sung at but to sing to, not to be performed at but to perform with, all those folks on stage.

Again, this wasn’t a show. Let me use the word again. Spectacle.

Following Nelly’s perfectly timed set and a decent intermission, TLC took to the stage. Again, it was more or less straight to the hits. You wanted “Creep?” Here ya go. “No Scrubs”? More like “No Duh” because here it is. How about we bring a fan up here who bought a VIP ticket and let him sit in this chair while we perform “Red Light Special”? Yeah, of course that’s going to happen.

There was a touching moment in their set when they paid tribute to Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, encouraging folks to turn their flashlights on on their cellphones while the band played “Waterfalls” in her honor. But again, this set was tight and timed out perfectly.

Finally, after a final intermission, (and a considerable amount of video packages, including what was more or less a Cottonelle commercial in which it was implied that if you used Cottonelle toilet paper, you would never have to worry about going commando. Yes, that happened.), the New Kids on the Block were introduced to the stage with a Michael Buffer pre-taped intro, and the spectacle continued. There were streamers. There was smoke. There was all the pyro and ballyhoo you could imagine. And there was, of course, the music. NKOTB opened up the set with “Block Party” and continued to bring it hard, running through “Crash” and “The Right Stuff” amongst a few other tracks, before heading down for a quick change (captured on live cam and eliciting more than a few hoots and hollers and whistles), and ending the evening in formal wear and singing the slow jams, from “Let’s Try Again”  and “We Own Tonight” to “Please Don’t Go.”

As I walked into a rather crisp evening in St. Paul, I had the fortune of overhearing a patron at the Eagle Street Grille talk to folks about his experience. “It was great!” he shouted. “Except they starting to play that slow s***, that romantic s***, and I had to get out of there…” Not a bad sentiment, but to be frank, neither he nor I probably fit into that shows demographic, and for the folks in attendance at Xcel, closing with that slow…. stuff… was a perfect way to end the night.

In keeping with the fight-night theme, it’s fair to say that last night’s show was a stacked card that delivered. These performers can still play to an audience, and play an audience, perfectly. There was never a dull moment, never a moment that felt like it dragged, yet it never felt like one was cheated from more, either. At about two and a half hours long, the show was the perfect length to get everything one could want and leave satisfied. Was this a heavily choreographed, possibly overproduced nostalgia cash-grab by a few pop acts of yesteryear? Of course it was. But it was a delightful cash-grab that is probably very much worth the expense. It was exactly the sort of mass communal experience that arena shows are made for, letting people move and sing along without fear of annoyance or judgment and giving folks an outlet to just let loose and have fun.

In front of a crowd that didn’t want no scrubs, these performers had the right stuff to make people move that body, and while things got hot in the Xcel Energy Center, St Paul proved it wasn’t too proud to beg, asking this tour “please don’t go,” but we all know that good things don’t last, and the night had to end. NKOTB’s Main Event show was a surprisingly enjoyable event that speaks to the longevity of pop music as a whole and those terrible earworms of youth that have more or less guaranteed that I’m going to be listening to a lot of Nelly this week. It was an impressive spectacle that had no pretenses about what it was, and it played to its strengths wonderfully.

 

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