Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Block is Back

“Fifteen years ago . . . they walked away. Tonight . . . the Block . . . is back. Are . . . you . . . ready?”

The text flashes on three giant screens behind the stage, interwoven with black and white clips from a heyday so remote, yet so familiar, that it causes simultaneous feelings of shock and yearning. Lush strings and a score worthy of Hollywood blockbusters tap directly into the audience’s tear ducts. For anyone standing in that audience who also happened to be there when The Block first hit two decades ago, the questions mounted. Could the bodies of men pushing 40 still rock the dance moves of teenage yore? Could they possibly be “for real,” or were they just the ugly girl seen behind the beer goggles of nostalgia? Could Joey still hit those high notes in “Please Don’t Go, Girl,” like a 14-year-old boy?

One question trumped them all, the one we had already been asked: Are you ready? My answer: no. And yes. Oh yes. The New Kids on the Block are back.

They played Cox Arena on November 25, 2008, at the tail end of their North American reunion tour. I’ve been to many concerts in my life, from the enormous to the puny. I’ve seen U2 play to a full house at the San Diego Sports Arena, and I’ve seen Danish star (and American nobody) Tina Dico play in front of about a dozen people at the Casbah. Music is one of my “things,” and so by extension are concerts. But after what I saw the New Kids pull off, I will have to reclassify my previous concert experiences as “music performances.”

My musical tastes tend toward the obscure, or at least something smaller than the top 40 wonder-divas of the day, or legacy rockers with legions of gray-haired followers. As such, I don’t attend very many stadium spectacles, or “concerts in the park,” too big for any building to contain. But I’ve seen Shakira, Sarah McLachlan, Juanes, and the aforementioned U2, probably the biggest band in the world. All of these are artists who follow the “go big or go home” philosophy of performance. All of their shows looked small compared to the New Kids concert.

This concert had everything:

  • Fog machines, streamer confetti, and showers of sparklers accented various portions of the show.
  • Danny Wood performed several breakdance pieces, including that feat of strength where you go parallel to the ground and hold your body up just with your hands. He went into spins and “runs” on his hands.

  • Cursing, though sparse. Joey, last seen as the kiddiest of the kids, had fun with it, unleashing a “Holy sh--!” then saying, “I don’t know if we swore back in the day.”
  • Mid-way through the show, they relocated to a circular, rotating off-stage stage in the middle of the floor. Here they performed old hits such as “Tonight” and new hits such as “Dirty Dancing,” while dancing around a baby grand piano, atop of which a go-go dancer cavorted.
  • A solo Jordan Knight performed “Baby, I Believe in You” on a high platform, while an industrial fan blew upward at his open chest, his almost-off shirt flapping behind him like an impudent sail.

  • At the first “intermission” or costume change, the video screens played an oddly out-of-place montage of fallen musicians and family members. It was reminiscent of Oscars-night tributes, accompanied by the same raucous cheers for the images of, say, Kurt Cobain and James Brown, and crickets chirping for, well, how would I know who those people were? My best guess for why they showed this: in the 15 years of silence since we last heard from the New Kids, these are the people they lost personally, as well as those who are lost to our musical culture. And yet the New Kids survived.
  • Speaking of costume changes, the New Kids brought the chic, donning everything from suits to t-shirts and jeans to lily-white psych-ward get-ups to Celtics jerseys, a shout-out to their Beantown roots.
  • Jordan and Joey McIntire both had the stage to themselves for several of their own non-New Kids songs. Perhaps they were rehearsing for their solo careers? They are clearly the singing stars of the band, and Joey in particular looks like a matinee idol and would surely win most American Idol seasons handily, but I think their best music has been made as New Kids.
  • The backing band usually gets introduced at the end of the show; the New Kids introduced them with raps riffing on the players’ names.
  • A brief cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” was inserted seamlessly into “Hangin’ Tough.” The New Kids closed the show with a seemingly impromptu but almost certainly meticulously rehearsed cover of Little Richard’s “You Make Me Wanna Shout.”
  • Crotch-grabbing and self-deprecating commentary. Though an earlier team grab during a dance routine threatened to bring the house down with the weight of fainting women, the most precious crotch grab of the night happened at the end of “Click Click Click,” where the band has a ritual pose-off, in keeping with the photographic theme of the song. This one saw Jonathan Knight giving a monumental heave to the family jewels, the image lustily displayed on the big screen above the stage. The other New Kids bowed deferentially to the genre-destroying clutch.

  • They brought the noise, in the form of their adoring fans. I’ve never been to any concert or any event of any kind that was so loud with screaming devotees.
  • They played for almost two hours and a half hours, in an age when even big shows rarely last more than an hour and a half.

I was actually not a New Kids fan in my youth, but I have been informed that many of the details I noticed at this concert are iconic throwbacks to their glorious concerts and videos of the past, including Joey’s smiley face black jacket, Jordan’s shirtlessness, and of course, their legendary dance moves. The crowd went wild at the first strains of “The Right Stuff”; the Kids could have left it at that, and everyone would have been happy. But for them to have relearned and then performed the classic dance routine that older fans surely remembered, well, it brought a deep smile of satisfaction to my face. What I appreciated was the exceptional fan-service that wasn’t necessarily expected, but is the sort of thing that separates a merely good performer from a band that truly respects its fans and is doing its best to connect with them.

It seemed to me that the New Kids didn’t feel merely respect, but extraordinary gratitude for their fan base. Here’s a band that went from being princes of the world to being a musical joke, all within a few years. They could have reunited and been greeted with the sound of one hand clapping. That their new CD is selling well and they’ve been welcomed by a new generation of teenagers is a gift. I admired how determined they seemed to not have anyone leave the building feeling disappointed. It was as if they dreaded most the thought that someone would go home saying, “Well, they used to be good, but I don’t know why they came back.”

Why did they come back? Answers: Yes, they can still dance like fiends. Yes, they are “for real.” And no, Joey doesn’t sing like a little boy anymore. But that was the beauty of this concert. They’re not the same as they were, and I think no matter what expectations the crowd was carrying into the show, they would have been a little disappointed if the band hadn’t changed. I think what the old fans wanted to see in their New Kids is that they be new again. Their new album is very much a product crafted to appeal to current R&B and hip-hoppy pop tastes, and as such, the songs sound a lot like many other genre hits on the radio. Their old songs, though refreshing to hear now (and live), are still old, and being different from what’s produced now doesn’t make them new. What was new about the New Kids to me was their attitude toward the music and toward their audience.

They seemed to know that their old songs, though catchy and even enduring, are not the pinnacle of songwriting, so they sang them as fun songs, not as preciously overwrought opuses. And as cheesy as a lot of the antics were (breakdancing?), and as dated as the dancing was, the whole performance radiated cool. I think it was because they embraced the cheesiness as part of their history, instead of denying it. If they had seemed ashamed of their past, then the whole audience would have to be ashamed of themselves for coming to the show. That kind of cowardice would not have gone over well. Instead, the New Kids showed that they were happy to be back and even happier to know that they were missed. Their lack of pretension created something that was genuinely new in the musical world, and it was music to my ears.

But there’s something even simpler than this, and it has to do with those 15 years gone by. Seeing little Joey and the rest of them bringing the goods in their mid- to late-30s is reassurance that even though we’re all a little older, we can still raise the roof that looms ever nearer to our heads.

(The lone missed opportunity was the band’s failure to perform their new song, “Big Girl Now,” recorded on their CD with Lady Gaga, who happened to be the first opening act, and was thus in the house. This was especially disappointing because they had actually performed the song together at least once before, at the Sacramento concert. I can only surmise that they decided it wasn’t a great showpiece, or Lady Gaga was somehow unavailable. But it would have done much to bridge the gap between old fans and new. Instead, we were treated to the New Kids singing “Grown Man” alongside a video of Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls. It was rather depressing stuff.)

My companions at the show, neither one of them out of swaddling clothes when the New Kids were darlings of the universe, are ardent fans of their new album, The Block, but were only vaguely aware that there existed a prior incarnation of the band, one that featured jazzy hats, skinny ponytails, and shameless falsetto. I asked them how they liked the show, and they said it was good, but they prefer “the real The Block.”

I would say they’ve missed the point, but that would imply that they ever could have gotten the point. Not having been there in 1990, however, there’s really no way they could have “gotten” it. It would be like asking me to appreciate the JFK assassination. Yes, I understand the significance, but I can never “get” it the way someone who was alive then “gets” it. To them, the popularity of the New Kids is a tedious history lesson.

It occurred to me that here was a generation of young people who thought that the New Kids on the Block were that hot band that had collaborated with Ne-yo and the Pussycat Dolls. God willing, their second lease on life will be as fruitful as the first, so that their current work can legitimately be called “the real The Block.” Until then, the New Kids will always be a Hypercolor dream of synth and drum machines and not one, but two, hit songs with an “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” hook.

(Note: I neglected to bring a camera to the show because I didn’t realize it was going to be awesome. As a result, I’ve scavenged Youtube to find the clips in this article, which occasionally necessitated using footage from other shows if it wasn’t available for the San Diego concert.)

1 comment:

Henry said...

Sounds like it was awesome. I don't know a single New Kids song. I think they were mostly done by the time I became aware of them. They were still around, but only hip with girls.

Sometimes I dream of attending an MC Hammer concert, but I think you're right that, even though it would probably be fun, it would also be kind of sad just trying to relive the past. And, unlike the New Kids, I don't think Hammer has any comeback in him.