Cooling it, now, in Greensboro

by Ryan Snyder

It was only a few months ago that the whole idea of a New Edition 30th anniversary reunion tour seemed like a novelty. None of the five original members nor late ’80s recruit Johnny Gill had tendered anything worthwhile in years — decades in some cases. Hardly anyone is excited about the possibility of a new album, and even

fewer are aware that there’s a biopic in the works. But with the untimely death of Whitney Houston last weekend, the reunion became a tangent to what will likely go down as the biggest pop-culture story of 2012, and suddenly their relevancy isn’t so much in question.

New Edition’s ability to outperform the Bobby Brown circus, however, still is.

Like practically every New Edition date following Whitney’s death, the biggest question Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum was simply, “Will Bobby or won’t Bobby?” He had missed shows earlier in the week, and the funeral for his wife of nearly 15 years was less than 12 hours from the show’s start time. Ralph Tresvant noted during the show that North Carolina has always been especially kind to New Edition, but such lurid speculation wasn’t exactly bad for the tour; attendance for the date landed at 7,646 — the group’s best attended show up to that point.

Bobby, of course, did make the show, and his entrance was a spectacle of its own. The quintet of Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe all had the chance to demonstrate that their voices were still winsome and fluid on a handful of tracks from the post- Bobby album Heart Break before the scenestealer snuck on stage to supply backing vocals.

His official introduction was made by Tresvant as Brown, with his Pusha T-coined “Bobby Brown Jaw” swinging lazily to the right, looked on coyly as hundreds of mass-produced “I [heart] Bobby”

placards went up. The group kicked into the 1983 hit “Jealous Girl,” as it was clear that the boys had become men and the toughness that emerged in their later material was reflected in the grownup interpretation of the cotton-candy classic.

The group had three shows with the full lineup prior to Greensboro and several more sans Bobby. Bell Biv DeVoe in particular seemed stuck in between the swinging individuality of their post-NE music. When the routines called for synchronicity, they looked stiff and off-kilter. The rest of the time they seemed to be improvising, mugging for cameras or meandering on the periphery. There were moments that they turned their inelegance into levity, however. Tresvant recalled a guffawing Brown’s departure, citing his inability to keep up with their ever more challenging steps (ironic). Challenge accepted, Brown’s rejoinder was for the house to make noise if he did well and make noise if he didn’t.

When the group wasn’t updating timeless pop hits like “Candy Girl” and “Mr. Telephone Man,” they were revisiting some of the group’s biggest solo hits. The forever-underrated Tresvant took on his lone solo smash “Sensitivity” with a nod to Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.” Johnny Gill gave a commanding, gospel-drenched rendition of “My, My, My” and an over-long survey of his new single “In the Mood” that included several laps through the crowd. Bobby didn’t deliver the “On Our Own” or “Humpin’ Around” goods, but his delivery of the new-jack swing anthem “My Prerogative” was well played, if slightly unsuitable given the circumstances. There didn’t seem to be much room to go off script though, as a procedural Whitney eulogy from Brown implied. Bivins later reinforced the theory after Brown’s new single “Get Out of the Way.”

“Yo, Bobby, everyone knows that new joint. It’s blowin’ up all over the world, but how about that Bell Biv DeVoe?” Well, how about it? Hearing “Poison” and an abbreviated “Do Me” were incredibly satisfying moments for a child of the ’80s.