Love ‘em or not, you have to tip your hat to New Kids On The Block. They are master marketers. They know what their fans want. And in their world, what their fans want, they get.
The Bostonian quintet of Donnie Wahlberg, Joey McIntyre, Danny Wood and brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight don’t waste stage time with obscure cover tunes or deep cuts they haven’t sang in 30 years. That’s not what their adoring fans (the Blockheads) long for when they dole out their hard-earned money to see them in concert.
“Keep it simple,” the Block-worshipping children of the 80s say. “Just give us the hits.”
So NKOTB does exactly that. It isn’t rocket science, just money in the bank.
Thus was the case Sunday night when NKOTB rolled into Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines as the headliner of “The Mixtape Tour” featuring themselves and 80s pop stalwarts Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Salt-N-Pepa and Naughty by Nature.
Not surprisingly, nostalgia-seeking fans of the genre have been packing arenas across the country since the tour’s kick off in Kansas City on May 7, and the near-capacity crowd at Wells Fargo Arena was no exception.
As the headliner, common practice would be to let the less-popular opening acts lather the crowd up to a frenzy. But not on this tour. NKOTB opens the show with eight songs then makes quick appearances interspersed amongst the rest of the show’s performers for the remainder of the night, thus avoiding the peaks and valleys of 90 straight minutes of one artist.
A cassette tape-looking floor flanked by multiple video screens served as the main stage at one end of the arena, with a much smaller and circular stage in the shape of a green compact disc at the other. Again, smart. The setup allowed smooth transitions from one act to another, as was the case when NKOTB’s “Block Party” ended on the compact disc stage, only to instantly give way to Tiffany belting out her 1987 chart busting cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’, “I Think We’re Alone Now” at the other.
The show’s songs were sung to a pre-recorded instrumental tape throughout. A backing band, while an added cost and a space eater, would have added an element of authenticism to the night. To the group’s credit, though, the vocals were live and raw, such as during “You Got It (The Right Stuff),” when Donnie jostled in and out of flat and sharp vocal notes at times.
But it didn’t matter. It fell on an audience of deaf ears. As for the eyes? Wide open and working, apparently. Giddy, school-girl screams echoed throughout the arena when any one of the NKOTB members lifted a shirt (many), grabbed a crotch (even more) or turned his buttocks to the camera to expose the waistband of a pair Calvin Klein underwear (only once, thank God). Admittedly, while nearly all of the artists are nearing or have passed 50 years of age these days, “Remix (I Like The),” “Block Party” and “Summertime” showed (literally) that the five NKOTBers are in as good of physical shape as ever.
Debbie Gibson, the cute-as-a-buttom, MTV-era teenager back in the day, did her best Taylor Swift impression during her first appearance of the night, bouncing out in a skin-tight sparkling top and black shorts for an “Out of the Blue”/“Shake Your Love”/“Electric Youth” medley. Her vocal chops have remained intact over the years, as has her ability to continue to hit the upper range notes so often lost with age. As was the case with Tiffany, whose rendition of “All This Time”/”Could’ve Been” was arguably the best vocal performance of the night.
Salt-N-Pepa, (aka Cheryl James and Sandra Denton), along with four background dancers, delivered hits “What A Man,” “Let’s Talk About Sex” and later, “Push It,” minus their third member, DJ Spinderella, who was fired from the group just weeks earlier.
NKOTB took to the small circular stage and rose 20 feet above the crowd later in the show during “Tonight.” “Thirty years strong,” Walhberg said to the crowd from the perch. “They said we’d never last that long. They were wrong. They weren’t wrong about us, they were wrong about you. They said you were a bunch of screaming, dumb little girls who didn’t know nuthin about nuthin. But one day, you were going to grow up and become teachers and lawyers and doctors.”
That’s marksmanship. Ladies? Melted. Wahlberg, who has starred in TV series such as HBO’s widely acclaimed “Band of Brothers,” and as Detective Daniel Reagan in “Blue Bloods,” then fronted “The Boys in the Band,” which featured an appearance by the Iowa Wolves dance team.
Oh yeah, there was Naughty by Nature, too, who played an abbreviated set that included their biggest hit, “O.P.P.”
After her familiar “Only In My Dreams,” Gibson took to the piano for a nice duet with NKOTB’s Joey McIntyre on “Lost In Your Eyes.”
The night ended in NKOTB in their Boston Bruins hockey jerseys during “Hangin’ Tough” and an everyone-onstage version of “80s Baby.”
New Kids On The Block won’t go down in history as one of the most musically gifted acts to grace a stage — not even close. But does it matter? Probably not, at least to the thousands of Blockheads.
What they wanted, they got. That’s priceless.
For Donnie, Joey, Danny, Jordan and Jonathan, that’s pure gold.