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The New Edition Culture Tour is in its second week. I had the pleasure of attending the show on their Baltimore stop on Feb. 27 and had high expectations having seen them on several occasions in the past. Despite not being born until years after they made their 1983 debut with their bubble gum hit “Candy Girl,” I am a lifelong fan of the group. They’ve stood the test of time and have countered the idea that groups don’t last long due to infighting and egos. Their music is timeless.

The original group fivesome consisted of Ronnie DeVoe, Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant, Bobby Brown, and Mike Bivins, all from Boston, MA. They used music to propel themselves into a better life. By the decade’s end, Brown became a mega star on his own, surpassing even the group’s fame. Johnny Gill was brought in for a more mature sound and to replace Tresvant as the label prepared for Tresvant’s solo debut. Though Tresvant didn’t immediately embark on his solo endeavors. Gill and Tresvant would also find success outside of the group, as well as Bivins, DeVoe, and Bell as a rap trio.

New Edition poses on the red carpet
New Edition on the red carpet at the 2021 American Music Awards | ABC via Getty Images

They’ve reinvented themselves several times in the nearly four decades they’ve been in the business with subgroups of their supergroup and even reuniting at different times. If you ask them why they continue to perform together, they will tell you it’s the brotherhood that keeps them coming back.

The Culture Tour is billed as a mashup of acts who’ve been instrumental in the transformation of R&B, featuring fellow group Jodeci and the legendary Charlie Wilson. Wilson was absent from the Baltimore stop and Jodeci opened up with a set that ran about 30 minutes.

But the main event was of course, New Edition. And despite the quick disappearance of Brown and a few other mishaps, the show went on seamlessly. 

Where was Bobby Brown?

I’ll be the first to say that Brown has always been my attraction to New Edition. Brown in his prime is magnetic, he’s energetic, he dances like no other, he takes risks, and he’s unpredictable. There’s a reason his ex-wife, Whitney Houston, referred to him as the “original R&B king.” 

On the heels of the group’s on-stage battle with fellow Boston natives New Kids on the Block at the 2021 American Music Awards and considering how on-point Brown was vocally and with his choreography, I was excited to see him kill it in Baltimore. I’d seen the group at the 2019 Essence Music Festival live, sans Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant in their subgroup RBMB (Ronnie, Bobbie, Ricky, and Mike), and was impressed. Unfortunately, Brown left me disappointed this time around.

The crowd went wild when all six members emerged from behind a large screen and donning matching suit jackets, black pants, and top hats. From the start, Brown struggled to keep up with the choreography. The bottom half of his body barely moved in sync with his bandmates as he performed their opening number, “Mr. Telephone Man.”

Source: YouTube

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Two songs in during the first chorus break for their 1988 hit “If This Isn’t Love,” Brown exited the stage. Once the follow up song “Roni,” his 1988 solo single, began with Bell standing in for him, I knew he more than likely was not returning to the stage. During a mini break before the group transitioned to another outfit change, the announcement was made that Brown was “having stomach issues” and was “being worked on.”

The group performed two more of Brown’s signature hits, “Every Little Step,” and “My Prerogative,” without him at different points in the show. Bell and Gill shared Brown’s vocals on the tracks. For “My Prerogative,” Gill participated in the iconic dance break solo with the female background dancers and even joked that it was his first time ever performing the song.

While it was impressive to see the group, it was also upsetting for many audience members who came to see all 6 men. Others raved that the group was able to substitute for Brown in such a way. They showed up and showed out and repped hard for their brother. More than anything, they proved how they’ve been able to sustain their careers for so long.

Six background dancers, four outfit changes, multiple solo/sub group performances, another member goes out

The concert had plenty of elements. Despite there being six members, the group had the support of six female background dancers who alternated between songs. Some songs were performed with the assistance of background dancers, while the men performed choreography themselves in others. And in true NE fashion, there were six outfit changes.

The Culture Tour | Madison Square Garden NYC from The Black Promoters Collective on Vimeo.

The great thing about NE is that there are so many subgroups. There’s BBD (Bell Biv DeVoe), RBRM, Tresvant and Gill have collaborations, and besides Brown there are solo songs by Gill and Tresvant. Gill performed his hit single “My, My, My” and Tresvant performed his hit single “Sensitivity.” BBD performed two of their hits. All or some of the group members helped with backup vocals and choreography. 

Brown wasn’t the only one to miss the show, or parts of the show. Bivins disappeared from the stage. At some points, Bivins didn’t take part in the choreography and instead stood behind a microphone. Later, Gill told audience members that Bivins hurt his foot the day before at a show. Bivins, however, rejoined the show a few songs later.

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While all group members pulled their weight in Brown’s absence, DeVoe and Bell were standouts. DeVoe doesn’t look a day over 25 and is in pristine shape. He barely dropped a sweat throughout his smooth and suave dance moves and was engaging with the audience. 

Bell also did well. He sang most leads as a fill-in for Brown and his voice didn’t crack once. Gill was an audience favorite. He did sound rather hoarse at times, but with the dancing, him filling in for Brown, having been on tour for two weeks, and their ages factored in, they did well. 

Brown excluded, the show was great. It’s no wonder the group continues to sell out in large arenas all these years later, no matter how many members are performing. And the NE lifers, a term the group has coined for their long-term fans, will always be there to support.