R&B fans flocked to Bojangles’ Coliseum for New Edition’s reunion tour Saturday. The tour hit Greensboro in February only a week after Whitney Houston’s death. While it was obvious her passing still haunts ex-husband (as does the 2011 deaths of his mother and father), Bobby Brown played up his bad boy reputation boasting, clowning, dancing, and (true to the title of his reality show) just “being” Bobby Brown.
After an opening set by current comeback crooner El DeBarge, who had fans rapt with his still soaring falsetto and slick moves, five of New Edition’s six members took the stage in classy white-trimmed, black three-piece suits. As Ronnie DeVoe, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Johnny Gill, and Ralph Tresvant hit move after move straight from the video for “If It Isn’t Love,” tongues began wagging at the possibility that Brown might be a no-show. They sang two more songs, including “You’re Not My Kind of Girl,” before Brown sauntered on stage as if to say, “Gotcha!” The crowd erupted.
“Ya’ll thought Mr. Bobby Brown wasn’t gonna show up,” shouted Ralph Tresvant later. The crowd had nothing to worry about. It was actually Gill who appeared on those mid-era tracks following Brown’s departure from the group - a topic Brown and Tresvant comically revisited later.
Suddenly it was 1983 as Gill stepped away and the original members charged through “Jealous Girl,” “Is This the End,” “Popcorn Love,” “Candy Girl” and “Mr. Telephone Man.”
Time seemed hardest on Brown’s vocals (at 43 he’s the youngest of the group). But considering New Edition recorded most of those songs before its members were old enough for learner’s permits, they and their material have held up well. With the Temptations/Jackson 5-style choreography, it does not look like an easy performance to executive even though the group has been performing many of these routines for years.
Brown thanked the audience for its support of both the Brown and Houston families. He also mentioned that he’s been sober for seven and a half years and credits the group with helping him keep it together since Houston’s sudden passing. Then things turned less serious with him accusing his band mates of “plotting” to kick him out because he couldn’t keep up with their dance moves.
He then announced that he could out-dance everyone except Ronnie DeVoe (who was still the smoothest of dancers, gliding across the stage as if there were liquid in his limbs). With Brown cutting dance moves behind them, the group covered the rest of its older hits in a medley that included “Cool It Now” and “Count Me Out.”
Gill returned to sing his smash ballad “My My My” signaling each solo artist or offshoot of the group to follow suit. Brown wooed the crowd with “Roni.” Bell Biv DeVoe turned in “When Will I See You Smile?” And Tresvant revisited his more upbeat “Sensitivity” (with heavy backing vocals from Brown playing nicely off Tresvant’s higher vocals).
“Can You Stand the Rain” and “Boys to Men” followed. Gill, who released his first solo album in 16 years in 2011, performed his recent single “In the Mood” alone. Gill literally worked the crowd, walking out into the audience, growling, summoning Prince-like squawks, and calling out Charlotte area-native K-Ci Hailey (of Jodeci and K-Ci and JoJo fame). Gill expended so much energy I wondered if he’d have any left for his other big hit, “Rub You the Right Way.” He didn't perform it. Hailey took the stage briefly, but did not sing (fans will have to wait for Fresh Fest at Time Warner Cable Arena July 1 for that).
New Edition emerged in blue track suits. Brown broke into “My Perogative,” which was followed by a portion of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Do Me” and a bumping rendition of “Poison.” The latter received one of the biggest crowd responses of the night. Although I was hoping for more of the same - upbeat solo hits like “Rub,” “Every Little Step,” or “Don’t Be Cruel,” - the clock was ticking. Instead all six gathered on stools and crooned 1996’s “Home Again” as the crowd, apparently aware that there’d be no encore after 11:15, dispersed.
My biggest concern going into the concert was the sound. At their March 2007 show in the same venue I had a hard time differentiating what song they were singing, though performance-wise they looked spot-on. This time was much better. The sound wasn’t impeccable, but I had no trouble figuring out what was being sung on stage.