November 2016 will go down in history as a month that began by dividing our country in a way we haven’t seen in recent years. Regardless of where you stand with politics I think it is safe to say everyone is ready for an escape. We are all hoping for the best while simultaneously wishing we could disengage from it all and take five minutes to ourselves. We need it as much as we deserve, but as much as the current political climate has left many feeling their way of life has been threatened time continues to march on. Offices, stores, schools, restaurants, factories, and all other industries, services, agencies, etc are still operating more or less as usual. We have to think about the big picture while maintaining the minutia of day to day existence and it’s all we can do to not collapse from exhaustion or hide in our beds until we’re a bit closer to Thanksgiving.
You’ve read the title of this piece so I’m going to assume you know where this is all headed, but earlier this week iconic boy (now man?) band New Kids On The Block announced plans for a 2017 tour with support from popstar turned American Idol reality show personality Paula Abdul and 90s RnB sensations Boys II Men. Dubbed ‘The Total Package,’ this tour will find the five-piece pop group playing sold out and near-capacity arenas all over the country to a wide demographic of people and I’m here to urge you to not hesitate on buying tickets now to see them for yourself.
To be clear, this is not a paid advertisement. I have no ties to NKOTB or their team (even though I would LOVE to).
I was born in 1987 and, like many of you reading this now, spent the majority of my life knowing next to nothing about New Kids On The Block. They were a boy band for a generation before my time, and when I was in the target demo for that particular genre groups like Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were the names everyone was talking about. This was a time back before social media when most young people had to hope their family could afford basic cable in order to catch Total Request Live with Carson Daly on MTV every day after school if they wanted to know anything about what was happening in music. I loved those groups and in many ways I still do, but I never had the chance to see them when they were in their prime. The world of pop music was something that existed solely on TV and radio, which was more than enough for me.
When I entered college and found myself dedicating more and more time to music journalism the boy band craze of the late 90s had long gone the way of the buffalo. One Direction had yet to spark the third wave of boy band domination, and to be honest my interest in music had largely turned to the world of alternative rock, metal, and punk. I attended hundreds of concerts every year throughout college, and through doing so I was able to see a wide array of artists multiple times at different points in their development as performers. Some of the shows were downright amazing, offering moments that will never happen again in any other place on Earth, but the vast majority were good to perfectly fine. Everyone performed their songs admirably and people went home feeling good about how they spent their money. This is what we all look for in live performances, and let me tell you – it’s easy to find.
In 2015, after nearly a decade of entertainment writing and countless concerts, I began purposely pursuing performances from artists I had never previously considered seeing. I realized I had made a living writing about a handful of very specific music communities, but had largely never thought to experience what life was like for people in other corners of music fandom. I had never been to a top 40 pop concert, nor had I seen a chart-topping country artist play an arena sized venue. I had also spent very little time in jazz clubs (which are sadly, but unsurprisingly hard to find today) or underground rap shows. I had missed a world of events and overlooked a variety of unique communities because I was too focused on seeing everything one specific sound had to offer, and to be completely honest I – not to mention my wife to be – was burned out.
That’s when we made a simple decision. We decided to spend the year experiencing music communities that were largely new to us. This meant we would miss many of our favorite artists when they were in town, but we had hoped it would be a worthwhile exchange and that ultimately proved to be true. There are many reasons why this came about, but one show in particular still comes up regularly in conversation: The night we bought last minute tickets to see New Kids On The Block play Boston’s TD Garden with direct support from TLC and an opening performance from Nelly. It was called ‘The Main Event,’ and that title was in no way misleading.
Having grown up in a world where Nelly and TLC were household names, the collective excitement my wife and I had for their sets was about as high as you’d expect. Both acts ran through their radio hits, and in between each song someone would make some remark about needing to raise the energy or “set it off” before the headliners hit the stage. There were dancers, bright lights, and all the bass anyone could handle. It was a strong start to a night we had no idea would only get better from there.
To be clear, when we walked into TD Garden that night my wife and I only really loved one song from New Kids On The Block, and we weren’t sure if it would make the setlist. The song in question is a more recent release from the group, and it continues to be one of our favorite songs to this day:
Pretty great, right? This song should have been the biggest single of the season when it was released, but I think radio still holds a prejudice against pop stars over the age of 30.
Back to the show — the moments right before NKOTB took the stage were all we needed to realize that something special was about to unfold. Video monitors played a parody of the hit TV show Blue Bloods, which stars member Donnie Wahlberg, where he chased a suspect played by Method Man onto the roof of a building. During their confrontation, Method Man’s character realized the cop chasing him was from NKOTB, and from there laughs were born. It was a simple setup, but it went a long way towards helping outsiders to the world of NKOTB realize what lied in store. The men of the group may be icons in the industry, but they still have a sense of humor about the fact they’re reaching middle age and are still making money by performing songs that sang as teenagers.
As soon as the clip ended the lights dropped in the arena and an announcer came on to introduce the group as if they were boxers entering an arena. One by one the members took the stage in boxing robes with hoods up, but once the first song kicked in they tore off their outfits to reveal completely different costumes that allowed for far greater mobility. The fans, ranging from children to men and women well into their 50s, went wild. The screams overtook the music for a few moments, then subsided to a slightly quieter roar that never really let up.
I had no idea what song was being performed while all this was happening, but it really didn’t matter. As soon as the lights came up and NKOTB were revealed in full a rush of energy filled the room and continued to build throughout the night. The setlist leaned heavily on the group’s biggest (aka oldest) hits, but there was still plenty of room for more recent recordings as well. Every three or four songs there were also costume changes, which were accompanied by pre-recorded skits that were shown on screens throughout the arena. One featured a ‘dressing room’ camera and found the guys dancing around while changing from street clothes to three-piece suits. It was silly and a little weird, but above all it was entertaining.
My wife and I had expected to give NKOTB a chance to amuse us before leaving, but by the time the first few songs were over we had already been converted into fans of the group. It didn’t matter that the 80s were almost three decades behind us because what was unfolding in front of our eyes – and the music that brought it to life – was absolutely incredible. If I have attended one-thousand concerts in my time on this planet I would still place this performance in the top 5 of all-time. To say otherwise would be to deny what I know in my heart to be true.
James Shotwell is the Digital Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. He is also the Film Editor for Substream Magazine and host of the Inside Music Podcast.