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New Edition
Stairway to Heavenly Music: New Edition.

Albert Watson

The soul greats of New Edition
leave a San Jose crowd sweating

By Todd S. Inoue

I have to blame my sister-in-law for my current knowledge of R&B. She's a Soul Train dancer. She's usually on top of a riser shaking her thang or doing hip rolls down the Soul Train line. Performers like Blackstreet and Keith Sweat are played to death on that show, and I've found myself unconsciously singing along.

Which is a turnaround. I had grown weary of the cookie-cutter vocal groups patterned after Boyz II Men--like H-Town, Silk, Shai, et al. All these groups were directed at female audiences.

The difference now is that groups like Blackstreet and Sweat are attracting men as well as women. So when the New Edition reunion tour came to the San Jose Arena, my anti-reunion blockade was crushed. We were going--no diggity, no doubt.

At 7pm on the button, the lights were lowered. 702, a peppy female vocal group with a catchy single that samples the Police's "Voices Inside My Head," delivered a tight, if overwhelmingly loud, 15-minute set.

Next up was Blackstreet, featuring superproducer Teddy Riley. In glittery gold lamé shirts, Riley, Eric Washington, Mark Middleton and Chauncy Hannibal worked their magic with four dancers, four keyboardists/synths and a drummer.

"This Is How We Roll," "Fix" and "Let's Stay in Love" increased the humidity in the drafty arena with their four-part harmonies and soulful delivery. True to form, there were beats for the fellas, sweet melodies and perfect abs for the ladies.

Blackstreet flung roses to the ladies during "Never Gonna Let You Go." The big finish, "No Diggity," brought it all home with the arena going certifiably bananas. Riley worked a little vocoder, and the band incorporated a little of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" while the vocalists kicked through some trademark MJ moves: moonwalking, crotch grabbing, foot swinging, finger snapping. Planet rocked, mission accomplished.

Sweat Soul Music

Next up was Keith Sweat, whose Cool Water cologne wafted to the upper decks while he rolled through his hits--"How Do You Like It," "Make It Last Forever," "I Want" and a cover of Silk's "Freaky." He mixed it up with his dancers in various stages of entanglement and undress.

His well-baked baritone was smooth as the pleats in his corduroy suit. The popular duet with Adina Cage, "Nobody," had the crowd wide open. The buttery-smooth "Twistin' " did the same. It will be a few more years before Sweat gets to the Paramount Theatre or the Super Bowl--his voice is a little one-dimensional--but his time will come.

Cool Down, Heat Up

An extended cool-down period followed. Sweat left the stage at 9:15. New Edition didn't arrive until 10:30. The audience passed the time gawking at Jerry Rice and Barry Bonds. Dueling radio stations threw out lame cassingles to shameless fans starved for attention. Any groove the acts had collected upped and left.

Finally! The arena darkened. A film screen lowered, and a montage of clips from early New Edition videos began. The lasers went into overdrive against the backdrop of a country house, which perplexed me because New Edition hails from the rough projects of Roxbury.

Over the theme from Mission Impossible, the group--Ronald Devoe, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill--descended a staircase one by one. Six microphone stands, six men, bathed in a hero's welcome.

After the "Oh Yeah, It Feels So Good" intro and "Drive Me Crazy," Brown left the stage, and the remaining five members rolled through some old hits to the delight of everyone.

"If It Isn't Love" was letter perfect. Five planets perfectly aligned in melody and dance with Tresvant's gentlemanly voice. "Count Me Out" and "Cool It Now" were abbreviated yet satisfying. A hat rack descended from the ceiling, and the fellas topped off and performed the requisite tear-jerker: "Can You Stand the Rain."


Never been to an R&B or rap concert?
Todd gives the score.


Solo Sounds

Then it was solo time. Bobby Brown was first up. He was trashy, more like Martin Lawrence impersonating Donny Wahlberg. He rampaged across the stage singing "My Prerogative" then dropping trou, his ashy ass baking in the lights.

"Getaway" couldn't come soon enough. And because of the lateness, Brown's possible savior from his butt-ugly performance, "Don't Be Cruel," was cut due to time constraints. Before he left, he turned to the bandleader and asked "Cruel? Cruel?" to which the bandleader replied, 'Nope.' Instead, they played an outro, and Brown scatted some words from a new song and plugged his upcoming album.

Next, the trio of Bell Biv Devoe, dressed in sweats and snowboarding gear, entered to EPMD's "So Whatcha Sayin'" and 2Pac's "California Love." The unmistakable rat-a-tat drum machine of "Poison" got the party started.

Ricky Bell serenaded the hordes with his medium-high pitch. Michael Bivins, the most experienced emcee of the trio, stalked the stage with his slurring raps. DeVoe spent the time showing off his body and posing. Overall, it was a Vegas-style revue. "Do Me" and "Hootie Mack" followed, along with a trip through Jay Z's "Ain't No N----a."

Civility was needed, and the two gentlemen of the group, Tresvant and Gill, were on deck. Tresvant, who revealed he is now a Bay Area resident, showed off his smooth vocals on "Sensitivity" and "Perfect Gentlemen." He even performed a little scat from "Tom's Diner" and "Inner City Blues."

Gill gave one of those hyperactive R. Kelly performances, showing off his deep Harold Melvin-inspired range. He turned the stage into his pulpit, running around throwing roses to the crowd and crying out, "Oh, yeah."

Is This the End?

A brief costume change, and the New Edition members were in blue suits, sitting on director's chairs talking--in rather scripted fashion--about the good old days. Brown promised an oldie, so Tresvant got up and sang the first line of Force M.D.'s "Tender Love" before going into the vault for "Lost in Love," "Is This the End" and "Will I See You Smile Again."

Brown took the baton and dusted off "Jealous Girl," "Rock Witcha" and a delicious version of "Roni." Stripped of the machismo, Brown sounded great. Why the front?

The fellas got off their chairs to do one more choreographed song, "Mr. Telephone Man," before closing with the hit single, "I'm Still In Love With You" and a reprise of "Can You Stand the Rain." Bivins thanked the crowd profusely for buying the records and sticking around.

It took an hour and 15 minutes before New Edition got to the stage, which killed the momentum from the opening acts. Had the concert started on time, the crowd would have been rocked, instead of listlessly filing out the door, cell phones stuck to the ear. Two hours of New Edition on a Sunday night was enough, and the crowd, it seemed, couldn't wait to get Home Again.

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