Let’s get this out of the way right here, right now — I’m a Blockhead, AKA a New Kids on the Block fan. Have been since 1989. So if you’re expecting to read a takedown of the 1980s pop group that is still going strong 25 years after it first exploded, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
But let’s face it: Haters have no reason to read an article about a band they supposedly despise, so I’m going to assume that if you’re still with me, you’re a fellow Blockhead, a child of the ’80s, or simply a pop-music fan who likes to sing and shake your groove thang along to catchy radio hits from back in the day. That’s certainly what you’ll be doing at NKOTB’s “The Main Event” concert when the tour rolls into the BB&T Center on Thursday.
I was in Las Vegas and got to see NKOTB's first performance of this tour. The show, which feels way more energetic and fresh than you might expect from a band with this much built-in nostalgia, is perfectly encapsulated in the concert opener, a track from NKOTB’s 2013 album, 10, called “Block Party.” It may not be as well known as “The Right Stuff” and “Step by Step” but it’s a high-energy crowd-rousing anthem, a modern-day “Hangin’ Tough,” where the New Kids assert their place in the modern music industry. “Hey, so you want some satisfaction?” raps Donnie Wahlberg over the party jam beats. “25 years—still got ’em packed in!”
And therein lies the secret of the New Kids’ success—the way they unleash old-school showmen charm to such effect that thousands of women in their thirties and forties forget, for a few hours at least, that they have bosses and bills and babies and beloved spouses.
The five New Kids — Donnie Wahlberg, Joe McIntyre, brothers Jordan and Jon Knight, and Miami resident Danny Wood — are now in their mid-40s, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they hit all their marks in dance routines old and new while bouncing around the sprawling stage that takes up almost the entire arena floor. (Designed so that more of the audience could have a better view.)
“I think we get a lot of credit now for being solid entertainers and being journeymen,” says McIntyre. “We’ve been doing it awhile, and I think we belong.” That may not mean the kind of chart success that made them teen millionaires — the two albums NKOTB has released since reuniting in 2008 generated only a few songs that non-Blockheads may recognize, such as “Summertime” and “Remix (I Like The)” — but the group’s regular touring and its annual fan cruise keeps it in touch with the only critics it cares about.
“We’ve got awesome fans who stepped up in 2008 when we came back,” says McIntyre. “They told everybody that what we had back in the day was special and it was our job to show them.”
Today, given that New Kids aren’t even in the pop radio race with the likes of One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer, it helps that there are plenty of Blockheads working in the media (including Giuliana Rancic of E!, and Maria Menounos) to keep the NKOTB dream alive. “We don’t have these old fogeys saying, ‘They don’t write their own music; they’re just puppets!’ and all that baloney,” says McIntyre. “People have seen us — our ups and downs. We work hard but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
On stage, that tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is evident in the “quick change cam” that shows the guys strip and change clothes between numbers, and, for McIntyre, in a barefoot, shirtless, camptastic cover of a Eurythmics hit—which makes the ladies scream almost as loud as they do for his 1988 New Kids ballad “Please Don’t Go Girl.”
A sense of humor is a must when attending a New Kids show—the band knows that the audience knows that they know that they’re taking the piss out of themselves much of the time.
This year, that extends to the tour’s corporate sponsorship by Cottonelle, which is providing “an elevated bathroom experience” at concerts (nicer TP and free wipes!) and asking fans to “Go Commando” in what they call an attempt to end the practice of female fans hurling their undies up on stage. (The company admits they first considered Tom Jones as their frontman.)
The fact that New Kids fans are savvy enough to know this is all simply marketing at work but don't let it damper their devotion to the guys themselves is telling. In their eyes, the five "bad brothers from the Beantown land” can do no wrong.
All bands and performers claim to love their fans (Taylor Swift famously sends hers care packages) but for the New Kids, this is not just lip service. Since The Main Event tour began on May 1st, the New Kids have been doing nightly meet-and-greets (for a premium price, of course) but also singling out some of the most ardent Blockheads during shows—jumping off stage to give them hugs, or pulling them up on stage for the ultimate selfie moment. Wahlberg in particular has made it his mission to find fans he recognizes in the crowd so he can sing “Cover Girl” to them as they gaze deep into his eyes.
Danny Wood has been raffling off concert tickets and meet-and-greets via his charity Remember Betty, which honors his late mother and raises money for breast-cancer awareness—a disease the group and their fans are all-too familiar with. “Unfortunately, we’re losing some of our sisters to being sick and things like cancer,” says McIntyre. “People passing away—that means something to us, and it brings us together.”
In this way, the original boy band are more like the Rolling Stones than they are One Direction (who we certainly hope aren’t grappling with the deaths of fans). Mick Jagger turns 72 this summer, as the Stones continue to tour. Will New Kids still be hangin’ tough when they’re in their seventies?
“Yeah,” says McIntyre with no hesitation. “We’re not the Stones, but to a lot of people, we’re their Stones, you know what I mean? We’ll always be connected to our fans. We’re all going to grow old together.”
New Kids on the Block with TLC and Nelly. 7 p.m. Thursday, June 4, at BB&T Center, 1 Panther Parkway, Sunrise. Call 965-835-7000, or visit thebbtcenter.com. Tickets cost $15.75 to $330 plus fees via ticketmaster.com.