What do you get when you throw three decades of pop hitmakers into Madison Square Garden with a very loose boxing theme? Confusion, mostly, but at least the journey to figuring it out was entertaining. New Kids on the Block (three Number One hits), TLC (five Number One hits) and Nelly (four Number One hits) have joined up for more than 40 dates celebrating nearly 30 years worth of fusing pop, hip-hop and R&B. The first of two nights at Madison Square Garden was extraordinarily strange, with plenty of hits, a few misses and guest appearances from 50 Cent and Biz Markie.
Nelly, celebrating the 15th anniversary of his smash debut Country Grammar, kicked things off and was the surprise winner of the night. Filled with energy and a setlist packed with songs that have only gotten better with time, he gave a pristine performance that felt worthy of its own two-hour set rather than being placed at a 7 p.m. time slot in a partially full arena.
He began with party-starter “E.I.” and from there found a perfect balance between the twangy midwestern hip-hop and pop-rap he had perfected during the early millennium. He was the ideal ringleader and showman during bangers like “Air Force Ones,” “Country Grammar” and the still-tight rap ballads “Dilemma” and “Just a Dream.” Flanked by a group of twerking female dancers and two hypemen — all clad in white — Nelly’s performance was fairly collaborative with the people he shared the stage with, giving the female dancers a moment to show off their skills and always moving in sync with the hypemen, like their own miniature boy band.
TLC made a dramatic entrance beneath large, white paper fans only moments after Nelly left. The remaining members, Chilli and T-Boz, were as charming as ever, but their set took a while to find its groove. Beginning with 1992’s “What About Your Friends,” the first sign of awkwardness came as soon as Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ verse in the song came up, and the pair performed some minimalistic choreography to a recording of the late rapper’s part. The ladies found their voices after a few songs. “Creep” and empowering ballad “Unpretty” were crowd-pleasers, and both women got a little playful during the sultry “Red Light Special,” bringing up one of the few male audience members in the arena to receive a lap dance and serenade from Chilli.
They ended their time with a three-song punch, kicked off by “No Scrubs,” the only song of all three performers’ sets to truly get the entirety of MSG singing along. “Meant to Be,” a new song featured at the end of last year’s Lifetime biopic based on their career, was paired with archival footage of the trio at the height of their career in the Nineties. The clip show ended with a video interview of Left Eye talking about why “Waterfalls” is her favorite song before the pair launched into the track, showing that they’re capable of maybe finding a way to include their missing link in their live show without replacing her.
Though the first two hours of the evening ran like a hip-hop nostalgia mixtape, boy band-turned-man band New Kids on the Block were — as the tour title and announcer proclaimed — the main event. Entering the stage-in-the-round after Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” filled the arena, the quintet wore hooded robes like boxers and launched into their set with a pair of newer songs, from 2013’s 10. It began a night of decade-hopping, one that tested how well their songs from the Eighties could hold up with a collection of mid-Aughts comeback singles that tried to remove them entirely from that past.
As much fun as indisputable lead trio Donnie Wahlberg, Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre were having, showing off their falsettos, abs and choreography, something was off with Danny Wood and Jonathan Knight, Jordan’s older brother. Wood was more in sync with the other men, happy to blend in as the trio took over the heavy-lifting with both vocals and audience interaction. The eldest Knight, however, looked visibly uncomfortable, standing awkwardly in the middle as the other men thrusted their pelvises at the screaming audience and often leisurely strolled across the stage as the rest moved with frenetic urgency. His discomfort with the group and their popularity has never been a secret — Knight was the first to leave before they initially disbanded in 1994 and has been open about a panic disorder that plagued him during their height. In concert, it was hard to tell if he was miserable being in the center of the packed arena thanks to his perpetual smile, but it was clear by his lack of participation that he was possibly upset.
Early in the show and following a ‘Quick Change Cam’ that gave the audience a peak at them in their underwear as they put on suits, they performed a medley of their ballads. Each was introduced with the year of its release written out on the jumbotron above the stage and ranged from 1986’s “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” to 2013’s “We Own Tonight.” The ballads have aged a little less well than the more upbeat tracks, making the section a bit slow, but McIntyre’s perfect rendition of “Please Don’t Go Girl” lifted it back up.
They swiftly returned to the hip-pop fare of their relaunched career (“Remix,” “Summertime”) before the biggest shocks of the night. Special guests Biz Markie and 50 Cent took the stage to perform “Just a Friend” and “In Da Club” respectively, bringing the night back to its hip-hop nostalgia beginnings. While NKOTB have been known to cover “Just a Friend” on their tour, 50 Cent’s appearances brought out the biggest and most shocked response of the night, and the rapper looked as surprised as everyone else that he was on stage with the boy band.
Both rappers were outshone by Joey McIntyre’s toddler son, Griffin, who sang the opening lines of “Tonight” and danced on top of a piano as his dad’s band sang the song from and with the audience. It was the last group number before an interlude of solo moments for Joey, Jordan and Donnie.
With the wind blowing open a white shirt to show off his chest, Jordan performed “Baby, I Believe in You” and his solo track “Give It to You” as if he were giving the audience a striptease. Joey followed suit, keeping his shirt completely off as he jumped around the stage like a dancer, covering the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and performing NKOTB’s “Twisted.” The typically more flirtatious Donnie kept it simple with a medley of “I Need You” and “Lean on Me” before singing “Cover Girl” directly to wife Jenny McCarthy’s former View co-host Sherri Shepherd.
The show wrapped up as explosively as it began. Naturally, “Step by Step” and “Hangin’ Tough” stole the final moments and were filled with as many dances as they could pack into those songs. Confetti shot out of every cannon and the screams were wild as they flirted their way off the stage, nodding back to a quote earlier in the night, when McIntyre said “I know you thought you were going to marry all of us” to the audience before thanking their real life wives and partners. At least for a while, the man-band let their fans have the fantasy.