Bell Biv Devoe/SWV/Al B. Sure/Jon B @ ShoWare Center, Kent, WA 02.10.11
Normally, Kent's ShoWare center is full of young, scrappy hockey players taking swings at each other; last night, it was playing host to the New Jack Swing Hall of Fame ceremonies. If 1990's R&B is old school (as referenced numerous times by acts on the bill), then Thursday's show was a pretty comprehensive masters course in how it was done; Bell Biv Devoe, SWV, Jon B. and Al B. Sure all graced the stage with some of the 90's most notable jams. It was a brilliantly built time machine, spanning anywhere from 1984 (the New Edition days) to the early 2000's (faintly represented by Jon B.'s later catalog). The last decade was all but untouched by any artist; however, after 10 years of hearing hip-hop and R&B songs that were built to be ringtones instead of bedroom odes, it was refreshing to eschew the modern and go back to a slightly more innocuous time of auto-tune free songs.
Al B. Sure started the evening off asking "Did I get too old for you?" Decked out in a black suit, bedazzled baseball cap, and flanked by two backup singers (one of which was his son, "Lil B. Sure"), Sure played a mix of radio hits (good lord, the man's voice is high) and some awesome feature solos for his son (singing "Can We Talk For A Minute") and his backup singer Carla (doing "Killing Me Softly" and Faith Evans' "Love Like This" acappella and bringing the crowd to their feet for the first time in the evening). Sure's 25 minute set was free of the cocky confidence that makes an R&B singer into a bedroom icon. Some folks appreciated his humility, and others were clueless as to who Sure was until the "La Di Da Di" intro into "Night and Day" dropped to end the set. What he lacked in braggadocio, he more than made up for in awesome quiet storm sound effects (a theme of the night, with tons of sourceless explosions and rain storms pumping through the PA), commendably warming up the crowd.
Jon B. was up next, and the crowd was obviously just a touch less old school than Al B. Sure's demographic. Opening up with the disembodied strains of Tupac pumping through the speakers on "Are U Still Down", Jon B. had the crowd noticeably more excited than Sure's set. Playing what is likely the largest keytar on the market (seriously, this thing was a spaceship, and never left his neck for a second of his 30 minute set), Jon B. stalked the sparse stage sweatily and forcefully, seemingly never putting the mic down even while playing some seriously Troutman-esque piano parts (the only performer of the evening to have anything resembling live instrumentation on stage). What Sure lacked in cockiness, Jon B. quietly projected confidence, and seemed delighted to be playing for an appreciative crowd.
SWV's set was glittery in all the right places; their voices shone brighter than their sequined wardrobes as they ran through a 30 minute set of buttery smooth soul. Opening up with "Right Here", SWV inspired even more electricity in the crowd, as people started to move from their seats out into the aisles to dance (I saw at least one concert-goer removed from the premises for refusing to listen to an usher tell her where to dance). SWV's set was smooth, upbeat, and playful, with the girls inviting the crowd to come out and gamble with them at the Muckleshoot Casinoafterwards. Cheryl "Coko" Clemons lead vocals were gorgeous and absolutely on point; a few sound glitches (and some feedback) made it glaringly apparent how much of their harmonic backing vocal magic was pre-recorded, but when you have an audience nearly drowning you out by singing every word of "Weak" back at you, backing tracks really don't matter too much.
While every other group essentially played over backing tracks, Bell Biv Devoe had an explosive DJ mixing up the set. The crowd had bubbled up with perpetual excitement throughout the show, but having a DJ blaring "Rock the Bells" at you through a giant soundsystem while screaming "If you're 25 and over, make some noise!" was enough to put the obviously over-25 crowd into frenzied mode. All over 40 years of age with over 30 years of performing experience, Bell Biv Devoe are seasoned performers who truly make it seem effortless. Wearing matching red flannel lumberjack shirts (a subtle nod to the Northwest?), BBD managed to put on an airtight show full of megahits that still sound fresh after 20 years of wear and tear. None of BBD seems to have lost a step, with Bell's voice ringing out precisely, and Bivins and Devoe running around in the background calling shots and hyping up the crowd. In physical appearance and energy alike, BBD look like the last 20 years never happened, and performed a tight hour long set of dance hits and slow jams with just as much vigor as they ever did. You knew what would end the sweaty session, and BBD called up a slew of girls (hard to tell if they had big butts, but they were all smiling) from the audience to have a dance off for an extended version of their set closer, "Poison", leaving the room electrified and satisfied.
Bell Biv Devoe Setlist:
- (Ed Lover Dance break)
- I Thought It Was Me
- (Newer New Edition song...not sure of title?)
- Do Me (with Black Sheep "This or That" intro)
- Mr. Telephone Man
- Cool It Now
- Candy Girl
- Something In Your Eyes
- When Will I See You Smile Again
The Crowd: Southcenter Mall meets Players Ball. I saw some of the most amazing hair and shoes I've ever seen in my life.
Critic's Bias: Bell Biv Devoe was the soundtrack to my 8th grade year, and I may have owned a t-shirt that had "BBD" airbrushed across the front of it at one point in time.