BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
Since returning in 2008, New Kids on the Block have corralled an impressive parade of co-stars, taking special care to structure their shows to ping the nostalgia gene in the hordes of now-middle-aged women who flock to their concerts.
Their 2011 visit to Philips Arena paired them with the equally squeal-worthy Backstreet Boys, while their last Atlanta appearance in 2013 combined the testosterone of NKOTB with that of 98 Degrees and Boyz II Men.
For this two-month “Main Event” tour, the still-dreamy quintet of Jordan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Danny Wood, Jonathan Knight and Donnie Wahlberg tapped St. Louis export Nelly and the biggest-selling American female group of all time, Atlanta’s own TLC, to share the bill.
On Saturday night at Philips Arena, it added up to about four hours of music, four dozen hits and 14,000 very hoarse fans.
Of course NKOTB headlined – and we’ll get to their fun-tastic confetti-filled musical party in a moment – but for this tour date, in this city, TLC gets top billing.
The last time the R&B group performed at Philips Arena was 2000 – a few months after the venue opened – and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was still with us.
Since her tragic death 13 years ago, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas have performed sporadically, which makes their live re-emergence on this tour that much more special (and also ideally timed, since they’ll start work on their Kickstarter-funded final album as soon as the tour wraps, Chilli said during our recent chat ).
T-Boz’s distinctive tone, a combination of nasal and grit, poured into the opening “What About Your Friends,” as Chilli offered honeyed harmonies.
Of course they miss Lopes – musically and personally – and she was represented on recorded tracks and, later in TLC’s 45-minute set, overhead video.
But, as Chilli noted on stage, “We never broke up and we never, ever replaced our sister, Lisa Lopes.”
They also never strayed from a kooky, brash visual style, demonstrated by their matching metallic overalls and T-Boz’s intentionally lopsided haircut.
The pair hustled across the stage – a square set in the center of the arena with jutting catwalks and a band tucked away at one end – to play to all sides as they rolled through an exuberant “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and one of their silken midtempo finger-snappers, “Baby-Baby-Baby.”
Chilli is the more assertive dancer of the pair and she assimilated seamlessly with the dance troupe, offering hip-swiveling slinkiness on “Creep” and little kicks, sideways glides and locked knees throughout the set.
While “Diggin’ on You” could have used more vocal heft and both ladies were often difficult to understand when they spoke, there was little problem deciphering “Unpretty,” one of the most important songs in their oeuvre that bursts with that TLC stamp of self-worth.
Equally epic in TLC history is “No Scrubs,” the glorious kiss off to guys who have anything but game.
“That never gets old,” Chilli remarked to T-Boz with a smile at song’s end.
Genuine affection appears to exist between the two, which was showcased on the sweet ballad “Meant to Be,” a song written by Ne-Yo and released by TLC on their 2013 hits collection.
During the song, vintage footage of the then-trio beamed from the overhead screens, a wistful reminder of what used to be. But then Chilli asked the audience to “light up” their phones for Lopes as they segued into the sashaying “Waterfalls,” complete with a dance breakdown during Lopes’ recorded rap.
No, TLC will never be the same, but at least Chilli and T-Boz are dedicated to cementing her memory.
So, back to those boys…
While their fan base revels in the memories of their adolescence when in the presence of Joey, Jordan, Donnie, Danny and Jonathan, NKOTB is ready to mix things up.
The opening songs of their festive set – “Block Party” and “Crash” – came from their 2013 album “10.” But considering they were complemented by spurts of confetti and the sight of the dreamboats on see-sawing hydraulic lifts, they could have been singing anything and this crowd (or, most likely any on the tour) wouldn’t have cared.
But the group deserves plenty of kudos for producing a slick, stylish show packed with dozens of high-end lights chasing them around the stage, economical pops of pyro, a “quick change” cam under the stage to allow a glimpse of Knight in his skivvies, an arsenal of hits, a couple of “Magic Mike”-worthy moments and, did we mention the confetti?
The quintet sounded in fine vocal form – both solo and on harmonies – and Jordan Knight broke out his falsetto (impressive for a 45-year-old) early with “My Favorite Girl.”
The guys really should look ridiculous doing the signature shuffle move during “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” since they are men headed toward mid-life crisis years; but somehow they don’t – especially when they engaged in a prolonged dance-and-thrust-a-thon to close out the song.
For better or worse, NKOTB will always be tagged as a boy band. And if that means donning dapper suits to croon a medley that included their smooth cover of The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” – a Top 10 hit for NKOTB in 1989 – and “Please Don’t Go Girl,” on which McIntyre served up plenty of Broadway verve, well, that boy band thing is probably for the better.
From the vapid-but-fun “Remix (I Like The)” – also from their 2013 release – to a jaunty take on “Summertime,” which began with the group huddled around an on-stage piano, to an amusing run-through of Mark Wahlberg’s “Good Vibrations” (a fan sang the bulk of it and a put-upon Donnie Wahlberg contributed the song’s rap), NKOTB kept the adrenaline escalated.
The group practically incited a riot when they scattered across the arena to immerse themselves in the crowd during the fizzy “Tonight,” and, during solo spins, fans of Jordan Knight and McIntyre were given the chance to ogle their sculpted torsos.
Say this for NKOTB, no matter how many more years they have left to squeeze out a robust rendition of “Hangin’ Tough,” they’re determined to put their fans first.
The earliest show opener was Nelly, who hyped the crowd with pieces of his turn-of-the-century radio fodder “E.I.,” “Ride Wit Me” and “Air Force Ones.”
The muscular rapper, joined by members of the St. Lunatics and a quartet of voluptuous dancers, yelled more than he rapped and was usually impossible to understand. But the majority of the crowd remembered every word of the swinging “Country Grammar” and bounced appreciatively during “Hot in Herre,” a legitimate club banger that closed Nelly’s too-long set.