Heads of State/Keith Sweat/Ginuwine

Another better late than never post, about another show I caught in November. My lucky streak of winning tickets to shows continued, and this time it led us out to Grand Prairie and the Verizon Theatre for the Heads Of State tour. Heads Of State is Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant & Johnny Gill, and I was excited to get this chance (I’ve been a fan of New Edition for nearly 30 years but never got a chance to see them). I can’t say there wasn’t a little trepidation as well; seeing Bobby these days sounded a bit like a crap shoot, and I hadn’t heard anything about this tour.

It turned out that going in blind was the best thing that could have happened. After a spirited set by an ailing Ginuwine (he looked feverish but his performance never lagged) that made me into a bit of a fan, and an unengaging set by Keith Sweat (while technically fine he seemed to be going through the motions, though the crowd ate it up), the three co-headliners took the stage in matching three-piece silver suits and launched into a medley of New Edition hits.

That the show would start this way didn’t surprise me; I figured on some group songs, then short sets from each singer, then another group singalong to close the show. Instead, the three singers stayed onstage throughout, backing up each other or stepping forward to cover parts of songs the putative lead could no longer reach (in practice, it was generally Johnny striking highs for Bobby, though Bobby would growl low for Ralph or Johnny in return). The constant interaction, both clowning and supportive, friendly and seemingly real, made me think of a Sinatra, Martin & Davis performance.

Bobby Brown was definitely in the Frank Sinatra role; an obvious star, magnetic even without the spotlight, your eye constantly drawn to him even if he was upstage interacting with the band or just dabbing the copious sweat off his big frame. Johnny Gill was Dean Martin; the voice that hadn’t lost anything over the years, helping everything run smooth and joking with the big man to get the best from him (he seemed to know when Bobby was starting to flag, and coaxed him to better and better voice as the show went on). Ralph was Sammy Davis Jr.; a few show stoppers of his own (“Sensitivity” had the room in a swoon, and the crowd parted while hoping to touch him when he stepped off the stage to sing it amongst them) but knowing full well that despite his talent and hits he wouldn’t be in a venue like this without the others, particularly Bobby.

This Vegas-room feeling was only amplified by the homogenization of the music by the backing band; with so many disparate eras and styles represented they chose to aim for a milquetoast middle instead of going from New Jack to gospel croon to early 80s bubblepop r&b. Though I missed the hard swing of “My Prerogative” and “Rub You The Right Way”, the synths on “Mr. Telephone Man” lost their dated cheese so I grew to accept it.

The true selling point, and why I would recommend this tour to even casual fans of the artists involved, is the easy banter and joy the artists share with their audience. As the clips in the video above show, everyone in the house was singing along, encouraged and appreciated by the men on the stage. Easily one of the better shows I’ve seen in recent years, and something special in that it couldn’t be replicated on record nor was it trying to replicate a studio work. The show’s the thing.

Sadly, by all indications the Heads Of State will be on the shelf for a while, for all involved talked strongly and fondly about a New Edition reunion tour in 2012. And while I’d love to see that too, I can’t see Bell, Bivens and Devoe interweaving and integrating their work as Brown, Tresvant and Gill did that November night.

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