NKOTB's "Main Event" Delivers the Wrong Stuff (No Offense, TLC & Nelly)

Toyota Center
May 16, 2015

Guys, we need to talk. We could have lived our entire lives without ever seeing Donnie Wahlberg rub a fan's T-shirt on his balls during a concert. And yet here we are. But while we're all for the revival of nostalgia acts, it's about time we stop this New Kids On The Block madness. There's just nothing interesting about the once-beloved teen heartthrobs anymore, no matter how much anyone may have adored Jordan, Joey, Danny, Donnie and Jonathan in their youth. 

Just take the quintet's incredibly boring show Saturday night at Toyota Center, the one in which Mr. Wahlberg indeed used an innocent $45 shirt as a rag on his nether regions, as proof. The aging boy band and their "The Main Event" openers, once-massive country rapper Nelly and two of three founding members of TLC (RIP Left Eye), made the downtown arena their temporary home for a boxing-themed concert that should have been filled with some hilariously silly pop nostalgia.

But while Nelly and TLC's T-Boz and Chili slayed every bit of their throwback-laden sets, the music coming from the show's main attraction was pretty darn terrible. Like, verging on awful. Ball-sweat awful.

NKOTB took the stage armed with a 20-song set list amid throngs of aging fans, many of whom sported original fan gear just for the show. But while the fans appeared in the mood to hear those old "Favorite Girl" songs, the guys in NKOTB didn't appear to get the nostalgia memo. Following the script from last year's show, NKOTB almost completely ignored the fact that they're a throwback act, and focused on trying to penetrate their dedicated fans' minds with new material instead.

And, as one would expect, it failed miserably. As the NKOTB boys — nay, men — busted out recent, dance-heavy tunes like "Crash" and "Block Party," it was apparent that time has taken a pretty large toll on their vocals. Jordan, the former falsetto-baring boy of the bunch, has to reach much further to hit notes while the bass drops, and Donnie, whose voice was never exactly awesome, is now officially a hot mess. The notes were everywhere but on key.

Between the lack of song recognition and those struggling vocals — the dance moves were on point, though — the fans appeared to be totally disconnected with the show, at least for much of the first half. The boys might have been able to overcome the touchy tuning or the awkwardness of age, but without "Cover Girl" or "Hangin' Tough," it seemed near impossible to bridge the gap. 

Given that NKOTB's fame peaked many decades ago, it seems odd to push their new music on these original fans. It's not like the aging pop stars continued to make music that grew with their fans over the last couple of decades; rather, they stopped making music altogether. So expecting a group of — let's face it — very grown women to have brand loyalty to what should be a throwback group feels like a stretch. But NKOTB has done it on the last two tours nonetheless.

It took a handful of new songs for NKOTB to ever venture into any of those nostalgia tunes, and while songs like "The Right Stuff" were a welcome change to that new, cookie-cutter dance music, even those were out of tune and, at times, awkward. With 20 songs on the set list, there were solos and multiple costume changes, leaving the set feeling miles too long. Perhaps if they'd cut out some of their more recent music — especially whichever song proclaims they should "let the beat drop" repeatedly — it would have been less tedious, for both the fans and the artists, who were really struggling by the end.

But as bad as the NKOTB set was, all was not lost at this Main Event. At least the two openers did justice to the songs born at the height of their careers. Nelly, for his part, was fantastic. The grill-loving rapper jumped on the stage with the energy of all five New Kids, and kept it going throughout his entire set. He ran through every hit he's ever been on, or put out — including "Grillz," his song with beloved Houston rapper Paul Wall. He even threw in his icy grill for good measure. And unlike those NKOTB boys, Nelly managed to cover other artists' songs without feeling disingenuous. Rarely can an artist — any artist — adequately cover Beyonce, but something about Nelly up their with his hype men, bouncing around to "Flawless," was exactly what the show needed. It made up for the mess later on in spades. 

The "Country Grammar" rapper closed out his set with a  rad version of "Hot in Herre," leaving us wanting more. But while his set felt way too short — we could have watched him all night — we're sure his backup dancers were thankful for the shortened set. Those girls work nonstop. And in true Southern rap gentleman form, he made sure to thank each section of the audience before he took off. 

Same goes for those ladies from TLC. It's easy to forget how influential T-Boz, Left Eye and Chili were on '90s music and culture, but when they hit the stage in silver hologram overalls, and without a stand-in for Left Eye, the true weight of their long-standing careers really came to light.  As with Nelly, we're lucky these two were included on the bill, because they also made up for quite a bit of the NKOTB damage that happened later in the night. It's no secret that both Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins have always had stunning vocals, but quite surprisingly, from the moment they opened their set on Saturday night with "What About Your Friends," they sound every bit as brilliant as when they first hit the music scene in the early '80s.

The two remaining TLC members ran through — and excelled — a laundry list of old songs like "Red Light," where in true feminist form, they even pulled a man out of the audience to own him in a lap dance. At one point, a photo montage ran across the screen, splaying out photos of the group over the years, making the lack of Left Eye even more bittersweet. They kept every ounce of energy up during their 11 song set list, hitting every note on "Baby, Baby, Baby" and "Creep," and leaving their part onstage without a hitch. 

To sound so flawless onstage, and in a venue as massive as Toyota Center, is a feat for any artist, but it's especially impressive for a duo that has been belting out songs like "Waterfalls" for decades. At points, we had to ask our concert counterpart if the women were singing over a backing track — their vocals sounded that strong. But while they may have sounded as polished as their albums, they were definitely singing live. And we would have taken many more hours of those two. They most certainly could have pulled off headliner status.

Ultimately, two outta three ain't bad, we guess. But next time maybe Nelly and TLC can return — sans that two-hour, 20-song NKOTB set — to play a little longer. After Saturday, we'd take Chili's badass rendition of "Unpretty" over NKOTB's bass-drop any day. So let's make this happen, a'ight?

Personal Bias: I got stuck on this boy-band racket last year, too. I knew what to expect. And yet, I hoped...

The Crowd: Well, let's just say there were probably a lot of babysitters rakin' in them dolla-dolla bills so these parents (and OG NKOTB fans) could stay out past bedtime. 

Overheard In the Crowd: The musical director of NKOTB's show took to the stage at one point, busting out some Dr. Dre on the piano. The person behind me said, "Well, it's weird, but at least we KNOW this song." It summarized things quite nicely. 

Random Notebook Dump: I dragged an original NKOTB fan to this show, which ruined her boy-band dreams. Thanks for that, guys. Thanks for that. 

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Angelica Leicht
Contact: Angelica Leicht