Last Night: Boyz II Men, Eric Benet at Bass Hall

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Boyz II Men, Eric Benet
Bass Performance Hall
July 1, 2009

Better than: Um....getting my car towed?

So...maybe Boyz II Men should have opened for Eric Benet, and not the other way around.

Eric Benet, from the moment he walked on stage, had the crowd (a)roused with his forceful voice and charming interjections between songs. Wearing white slacks, white-rimmed glasses, shiny white loafers, a sailor-styled blazer topped with an in-pocket hankerchief, and a half-way unbuttoned blue dress shirt--not to mention his stubbly five-o'clock shadow--the sexy singer looked like he had just walked off a cruise boat.

Benet knew how to work a crowd: Aware of the roughly 30 to 60 year old (fairly certain I was the youngest attendee) and female audience, he frequently called out playfully, "Ladies can you hear me?" and "Help me help you," to which the crowd responded with an almost teeny-bopper's squeal.

Twice, he successfully encouraged the crowd to sing after him; he gave the men and women their own parts that corresponded to one another. For example, the men would sing "Fe-min-in-i-ty," as the women sang over them, "I like it, I like it, I really, really like it." As such, the concert seemed much like an interactive, musical orgy--but in a classy, sensual way. Benet, although the sexual undertones of his lyrics were less than subtle ("I like the way you take control of me with one touch"), was quite bashful about his romantic self-image: He said, "I couldn't get a date if I tried before I picked up a microphone, but magical things start happening to your life when [you start singing]." His strong, melodic voice, mixed with his humble yet self-assured demeanor, made watching him pleasurable and entertaining for both men and women.

His band--playing drums, guitar, and a two-tiered keyboard--seemed to be having as great of a time as he and the audience were. During one of Benet's passionate love ballads, the pianist, who is also his music director, was smiling to himself and occasionally tilting his head back with an expression of bliss, as if heaven was shining on him.

The interplay between band and singer created an energy on stage that was infectious for the audience. It was obvious that the band was playing together, for Benet, who responded with equal camaraderie, introducing his band members at the end of the concert and giving them each a chance to do very powerful solos. (Meanwhile, the drummer was 18! Wow.)  

Once Benet's performance had ended, the crowd was hyped up for Boyz II Men. An overhead announcement was made that the set change would take 20 minutes, so many people left their seats to buy drinks and mingle in the lobby. The classy and lively ambiance, which could have been appropriate for a Broadway or Opera's intermission, called for an epic performance to follow Benet's. But by the time it was ready for them to perform, the stage was completely empty, save for three bouquets of roses, three bar stools, three red Gatorades and a few water bottles. No band set-up. Only a huge movie screen.

The lights went down, the curtain raised, and the crowd watched a blast-from-the-past montage of Boyz II Men's career. Then three of the once four-piece band's singers--who are clearly now Men, and no longer Boyz--jumped on stage, wearing pin-striped suits, diamond-sparkly bling, and sunglasses. Unlike Benet, these guys were dressed as if they were about to ride a limo to a high-end casino. "Motownphilly" was blaring--but where was it coming from? Oh, a speaker.

Yeah. So it was more of a karaoke night with Boyz II Men than a concert. As they sang along to the music, the video screen behind them showed their old music videos, and occasionally played what seemed like a PowerPoint presentation movie whose material had been copied-and-pasted from Google Images (think computer-generated orange and purple sunsets and digitized rose petals fluttering across the screen). The lack of a band was the elephant in the room, and to cover it up, the band was taking compensatory measures to put on a "show" and give the audience a run for its money.

The worst, probably, was the choreographed dancing that persisted throughout the entire concert. It was bad enough that there was literally no effort put into stage setup--but when these 40-ish year-old men who sing about making sweet love were dancing like they were N'Sync in the '90s, kicking their legs up like Rockettes and rubbing their hands down their bodies, it was simply degrading and embarrassing. 

During "I'll Make Love To You," the guys handed out roses to audience members who had gathered frenetically around the stage. At one point, one of the guys leaned down to take a picture with a fan.

All in all, their performance was overly-rehearsed and passionless. The guys looked bored by their music and dazed by the gawking fans. Their limited interaction with the audience (it was hard to get a word in when the music determined the pace of the show) seemed stale. The excitement coming from the crowd was more a reflection of their starlit love for the group rather than a response to the flat, egregious performance they were giving. People also seemed pretty into the Motown songs they performed off their 2007 cover album--but that praise also seemed triggered by old memories.

The only semi-redeeming moment of the night was when one of the Boyz came out after encore to do a song a capella.

Maybe if the whole concert had been performed a capella, my seventy-five dollar ticket might have been worth it. If I was refunded for half of it.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I am/was a deeply devoted Boyz II Men fan. I have been talking about going to this show for two weeks, and know almost every song off their albums. As I should have, I came into the show with high expectations. But the show was so phony that it's going to take me a few months at least to recover from the bad taste they left in my mouth.

Random note: Eric Benet was so sexy that, about five minutes into his performance, I checked to see if he was wearing a wedding ring. Which he wasn't.

By the way: Both Benet and Boyz II Men made tributes to Michael Jackson: Benet did a great rendition to "Billie Jean," and Boyz II Men gave a (maudlin) speech about MJ's effect on the group, and asked the crowd to engage in a moment of silence.

Random note: Buy Benet's new album. I know I am. The man's got serious talent.

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