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New Edition at US Bank Arena, February 14

February 21, 2012

I know what you’re thinking.

New Edition? Really?

Bear with me. I was never what you would have called a New Edition fan. Though I was of the right age when New Edition conquered the world, I was not their target demographic. Make no mistake about it, that act was manufactured specifically for the middle school female, Tiger Beat-reading populace. My wife, however, was completely in that demographic when New Edition ruled the airwaves, and when the group’s reunion tour announced a Valentine’s Day date in Cincinnati, it seemed like a no-brainer. Score some big points. Hear some bygone tunes. Seemed like a win-win, eh?

My assumptions going into this show were much like yours likely would be: it had to be a quick cash grab by a bunch of forty-somethings who couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, recreate the crisp tones they possessed at age fifteen. But still, it’s hard to deny New Edition as a pedigree — after all, the band went on to spark not only  mightily successful solo and ensemble careers, in the next few years at least, for Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill and Bell Biv Devoe (members Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie Devoe). Between the six of them they were inescapable on late-nineties pop radio, and though I’d never dream of popping in a CD of music by New Edition or any of its variations in 2012, I knew the music. So do you. Don’t deny it.

What I wasn’t expecting was a reunion tour that actually involved what seemed to me to be a great deal of work and forethought. “We’re not taking any of this for granted,” said Gill at the top of the show, and it was clear that the fellas really weren’t taking the reunion for granted. Opening with arguably NE’s biggest chart hit, “If It Isn’t Love,” the stage was set by a group of guys who may not still possess the same pipes of their teenage years, but were going to give us what they had. And that they did, for roughly two hours. Each number was meticulously choreographed in the same vein of their 1986 act, which itself would be the father of the boy band acts of the late nineties, and the show was carefully planned out as a journey from the origins of the group to its varying branches.

Each member had his time in the spotlight — the group first performing their previous hits together before Tresvant, who easily still sounds the best of the gang (one gets the idea he’s been taking good care of his voice since his last-millenium fame), took front and center for “Sensitivity,” which held up well. Gill stepped forward to deliver “My, My, My,” his first solo hit after leaving the band, and the trio of Bell, Bivins and Devoe brought the show in for a strong finale with “Do Me” and “Poison.” Though a couple of the guys seemed to be a little rusty (Bivins especially), it was clear that each on stage was at least taking the proceedings very seriously, which elevated things from a novelty reunion to a legitimate, sound concert by guys who knew what they were doing — or at least used to.

The whole thing had the feel of a Vegas act (the good kind of Vegas act), with stools placed on stage for the band members to step back out of the  spotlight while others did their respective “thangs,” and it was interesting to hear the maturation in their voices. Gill, especially, was never as smooth-sounding as his co-horts as a youth, but his voice today carries a strong amount of soul in a much more mature vein, and he particularly sounded like an artist who’d moved on to the next logical step in the genre (he just released a new solo album, Still Winning, to fairly strong acclaim on R&B charts).

While Bobby Brown was slated to attend, the death of ex-wife Whitney Houston made the Cincinnati date one of the handful he missed as he cared for his family back in Los Angeles; and even though it was always rumored that the band kicked Brown out and he left on bad terms, each spoke highly of him and seemed to wholeheartedly wish he could have been there — they even performed Brown’s hit “My Prerogative” as a tribute. Though Bobby Brown’s kind of a mess these days, it’s hard not to wish he’d been there for the performance of his solo work alone; the band, as a gesture of good faith, apologized and informed the audience that for any dates Brown missed, they’d return to those cities with him before they wrapped up the tour. To their credit they seemed to genuinely mean it.

Overall, it’s surprising that New Edition can still put it together after lo these many years. If Gill was right, and the group really wasn’t taking this reunion for granted, it certainly showed. They may not still be the fresh-faced, crystal-clear voiced teens they were when they captured the hearts of a million 13 year-old girls, but they give off the vibe of full-grown men who still love what they do and know how to do it. After a few songs, it becomes easy to stop glowing over the gimmick of a New Edition reunion and start glowing simply because it’s musically enjoyable and soulfully sound — truthfully, that’s probably the most amazing feat the boys could have pulled off.

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