The results are in: Man Bands are the new Boy Bands. Or: Man Bands are the old Boy Bands. Whatever they are, they’re still here, and for the most part, still doing their job: to romance, flirt with, propose on bended knee to, even make out with, if you’re sitting in the front row, females of all ages. It doesn’t matter if you’re seven, 17 or 70: they’ve grown up, too, so they know what you’re going through. And they’re here for you, baby.
Three such acts landed Friday night at the First Niagara Center on the both eloquently and brazenly titled Package Tour. That these adolescent-named groups – Boyz II Men, 98 Degrees and New Kids on the Block – now boast full-grown, masculine men, is a shoo-in for the machine that put them in business in the first place: ticket sales, maybe a few iTunes downloads, and plenty of merchandise. These fellas are still products, even if they’re not the hottest item on the shelf, but now, a quarter-century later, they’re something other than bare chests and baby doll faces.
Boyz II Men, the Philadelphia-born-and-raised preppies who redefined the male R&B/hip-hop crossover in the early 1990s, kicked things off with a criminally short powerhouse set. Harmonic blending and a capella tightness has never sounded so handsome.
Songs like “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday,” which emphasize their musical fortitude, and “End of the Road,” which catapulted them to stardom following their 1991 debut, “Cooleyhighharmoney,” remind us that you can never beat well-rehearsed, sharply executed musicianship.
Their maturity, reinforced by a tailored collegiate look and cool, calming control, now feels at home in their 40s. The Boyz, once a foursome and now down to three (Michael McCary retired from the group in 2003 for health reasons), always exuded this confidence, but perhaps lacked a right to it when they were young and aspiring.
“On Bended Knee,” about the most romantic proposal you can imagine, and the never-tiring “I’ll Make Love To You” were never out of their range of possibility, but today feel more logical. The latter could have played on loop for two hours Friday night, and no one would have cared; a great song is a great song, and they can still sing it, if not better than before.
Their bigger brothers, the New Kids on the Block, handily picked up where the Boyz’ left off, headlining the night with a nearly two-hour set. This was a long gig for so few relative hits, but with the backup of a couple post-millennial comeback albums, it was a nicely woven set list.
The New Kids – NKOTB, as they were vaguely, desperately known at the tail end of their teenage hype – have grown into fine-acting, unobnoxiously dressed men. That their voices are not what they used to be is not a big surprise; their voices were never what they ought to have been. But they, the product of producer Maurice Starr and surely a boardroom of Columbia Records executives, were always about the popcorn. Not surprisingly, their material is still stuck in the snack phase; this is no grown-up polenta.
Oldies like “Step By Step,” “You Got It (The Right Stuff),” “Hangin’ Tough,” and “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” were thankfully performed as-is – not too much reworking on their gems, which despite their brittle bones, still hold up after so many years. If anything, the romantic stylings of “Please Don’t Go Girl” hold up in the same way that Boyz II Men’s power ballads do, in that they’re no less seductive or tantalizing in their old age as they were in their youthful glow.
Headlining voices Jordan Knight, Joey McIntyre and Donnie Wahlberg, who would collectively go on to record solo albums, perform on Broadway and appear on film, have earned some significant stage presence in such time. Knight and McIntyre, especially, hold court as solo-capable stars, while the ab-errific Donnie (big brother to ab-dominating actor Mark), once a tough boxer-like bro, is now a welcoming tour guide. Gentle giants, man; they touch a nerve, every time.
It felt old-school, from the nostalgic music to the contagious choreography to the simple set – no backdrops, no video screens, no flying winged creatures; just an entrance at the end of the arena and a large platformed center stage, with plenty of lights and risers to illuminate it all. It felt categorically ’80s, in a downplayed, humble, fan-driven way. A lovely departure from the spectacles recently rolled through town.
But in the middle of the night’s two love letters, genuinely written and delivered by arguably two of the greatest boy bands of all time, boringly stood one lame duck. If you can name more than half of the names of the fools in 98 Degrees, you’re better fans than this arena would let you think. Nick Lachey, arguably famous only for marrying and so brilliantly broadcasting his marriage to Jessica Simpson, is one; and ... I think another is ... Scott? Todd?
Culled from a later revival of hot guy product, these dudes are duds, from their mall wardrobe to their squinty winking, from their point-and-smiles to their – oh, right – total lack of musical proximity.
Frankly, they were lucky to have gotten on this bill, considering the standards their brothers set for them, and the lessons their performances offered: that adolescent pop fanaticism is great for a moment, but that when done right, without the spectacle of controversy and globetrotting cockiness – I’m looking at you, Bieber – you can still mean something 25 years later. If you’re lucky.