There’s a lot to unpack at a New Kids on the Block concert: Flaming pianos, rapping cartoon cats, roses hurled with abandon, at least one Christmas carol crooned in falling July snow.
But you kind of have to start with Donnie Wahlberg’s denim romper.
What a garment this was, unveiled halfway through the New Kids’ concert Saturday at a sold-out Amalie Arena in Tampa, just in time for the sugar-sweet teenybopper jams Stop It Girl and Popsicle. Sleeveless and saggy, emblazoned with Kiss and AC/DC patches, it sent Donnie and the crowd 30 years back in the past, unleashing screams that had waited three decades to break free.
The outfit was a perfect representation of the Package Tour, NKOTB’s summer trek with Paula Abdul and Boyz II Men. It was silly but stylized, knowingly laughable yet worn with unabashed pride – and for Donnie and the New Kids, it fit like a glove.
There is something inherently ridiculous about the New Kids selling out arenas in 2017, starting with the fact that at ages 44 to 48, they are all officially Old Men. And yet too rare are tours like this one, concerts where the artists give everything they’ve got, no matter how goofy they might look and sound, so that 15,000 wistful, blissful, nearing-middle-aged fangirls and-boys might have the fantasy night of their lives.
The original Boston boy band – Donnie, Jordan Knight, Jonathan Knight, Joey McIntyre and Danny Wood – didn’t skimp on the crowd-melting gestures, stripping down to skintight tank tops three songs in. For You Got It (The Right Stuff), the band dished out pelvic thrusts and wiggles left and right. Anytime any member flexed or showed off some skin, and it happened often, the screams were deafening. Even after the show ended, the band hung out on stage for more than five minutes, embracing fans and signing autographs and giving hugs and kisses to everyone
If you sat near the floor, there was a pretty good chance you touched a New Kid on Block Party and Tonight, which saw all five members disperse throughout the audience to sing. Had this happened in 1989, there’s a good chance each one would’ve been crushed. Now, everyone just wanted selfies. Danny was more than happy to oblige, straight-up hanging out taking photos in section 102 while the other New Kids sang.
Every member got his moment to shine. Donnie was all-in as an MC, rapper and occasional frontman, but never more so than on Cover Girl, when he leaped atop a flaming piano and curled up his shirt to reveal his no-way-he’s-almost-50 abs. Danny did a little break-dancing. Jonathan crooned Happy Birthday to a fan turning 40.
And Joey and Jordan, by far the best singers of the bunch, sang their tails off anytime they took the lead on the mic – the former on a show-stopping Please Don’t Go Girl, delivered on his knees in a pile of confetti; the latter on a falsetto-fied, pyro-backed I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).
“You know the best thing about this music?” Joey said. “It still sounds good!”
He’s not wrong. For a boy band with 30 years in the rearview, NKOTB and their band still sold the hell out of everything. Even when the songs were so ludicrously dated that the singers couldn’t help but laugh – think the ripped-from-Tiger Beat lyrics to Be My Girl, or the out-of-nowhere holiday single Merry, Merry Christmas, delivered in a flurry of falling snow – their commitment to the fantasy kept everyone enthralled. These were, in fact, grown men doing the work of new kids, and doing it like their livelihoods depended on it.
“Life,” Donnie said, “starts at 40.”
Forty? Heck, why not 50? Joining the New Kids was Paula Abdul, 55, embarking on her first tour of this magnitude in ages.
Did it matter that Abdul only did six songs, and didn’t really sing any of them? Not in the slightest. Looking nothing like the curious mess the world poked fun at on American Idol – aside, perhaps, from a couple of long, quasi-inspirational monologues between songs – the former Laker Girl danced her L.A. Gears off for a half hour, delivering fierce, inspired and arena-worthy choreography that was as good, if not better, than almost any offered by any modern pop queen. She spun, she kicked, she hurled herself through the air and into the arms of her dancers.
Several numbers were inspired by the videos that made Abdul an MTV star, especially the Singin' In the Rain homage Opposites Attract, which featured a live Abdul twirling a digital umbrella and a step session with her animated co-star MC Skat Kat projected on an LED backdrop. On Straight Up, both Abdul and the stage went back to bold black and white patterns; for the song's finale, the singer flung herself from the eighth rung of an enormous ladder, into the waiting arms of her dancers. It bears repeating: She's 55!
Opening the show were Boyz II Men, who haven’t been doing this quite as long as the New Kids, but who in many ways are even older pros, having toured consistently all these years.
With Shawn Stockman and Nathan Morris coming out in custom Tampa Bay Lightning jerseys – Wanya Morris went all-white – the group ripped through 10 straight hits and medleys, from Motownphilly to Water Runs Dry to I’ll Make Love to You. Stockman’s falsetto wail shone on On Bended Knee, and the group’s a cappella songs (It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday, In the Still of the Night) felt intimate.
While there were moments of real emotion in Boyz II Men’s set – One Sweet Day, with the entire arena filling in Mariah Carey’s vocals, was genuinely stirring – they were also well aware of the power of their cheese. Closer End of the Road became one big vamp-off as the group passed out roses and kisses to the audience, warbling over a canned chorus, with Nathan in the center, dry-humping the stage.
You know what? Hump away, my dude, Fling those roses. Work that woo. Rock that dopey denim romper, and let this ridiculous moment last. We’re all getting older, but that doesn't mean we can't still have a little fun. Some bedroom posters deserve to stay up forever.
-- Jay Cridlin