Live Review: Boyz II Men – The Big Top, Sydney (14.10.15)

Boyz II Men embody the warmth and tenderness of classic 90s R&B, and I’m far from the only one who still recognises and celebrates that, as evidenced by numerous sold out Australian dates, almost 25 years after this ultra successful group hit mainstream consciousness. Hitting Luna Park’s Big Top for the second of two shows last week, the legendary group – now a trio – displayed more than enough flashes of brilliance to reiterate the timelessness of their most powerful songs and reassure us that after all these years, the collective of Shawn Stockman, Nathan Morris, and Wanya Morris have still got it.

Luna Park’s Big Top wasn’t exactly the ideal venue for a true showing of what Boyz II Men are still capable of. The last time I saw them was a few years ago in Enmore Theatre, a venue with the sound necessary for voices of that strength. Big Top, on the other hand, has sound that has always been a bit inconsistent to me, and it was certainly an off night when Shawn, Nathan, and Wanya took the stage. The sound was often muddy, holding many of the big moments back, particularly dragging the otherwise stellar Wanya, who would nail the classic bridges on songs like “On Bended Knee” and “Doin’ Just Fine” only to have his voice dampened. It also didn’t help that Nathan would interject with ill-advised audience interaction at the most powerful moments of some of the bigger songs, sucking a bit of the energy from the flow of each of these classics.

Nevertheless, there was little to complain about seeing as we got a very satisfying set list of classics, occasionally thrown in with covers – both hit and miss – and more recent material. All were performed with the same refined slickness I would assume they bring to their Las Vegas residency which they started a few years ago. Success has seen them sign on for a few more years at the famous Mirage Hotel & Casino, and you can tell it has changed how they approach performing. There are some showy, borderline cheesy moments, thrown in there, and although it somewhat livens the set up, it does take away from what we all know and love about Boyz II Men. For example, a thankfully short and quite terrible cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is awkwardly wedged in as the “white boy national anthem” before a more digestible cover of “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz marks the middle of the set.

Let’s rewind for a bit though; the first half was a smooth, hit-after-hit medley, cutting short some songs (“Uhh Ahh”, “4 Seasons of Loneliness”) and respectfully letting others breathe and resonate with the crowd (“On Bended Knee”, Plase Don’t Go”). The undeniable stand-out was the a capella “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”, which followed “On Bended Knee” and zoned in on those golden voices that have barely aged, and that stunning harmony.

Getting back to post-Nirvana mishap, Boyz II Men wedged another ‘okay’ cover in, tackling “Come Together” by The Beatles with Nathan-Shawn on guitar-bass while Shawn-Wanya changed their vocal style a bit to try do the song justice; it fell relatively flat, especially when compared to the strong run that followed, beginning with one of their best, “Doin’ Just Fine”, and continuing with their most well-known cover, Journey’s “Open Arms”.

“Water Runs Dry” wasn’t given the attention it deserves, but that saved time was used to give particular focus to “I’ll Make Love to You”, which saw all three throwing out roses while they proceed to melt hearts left, right, and centre.

To me, nothing demonstrates the tenderness in Boyz II Men’s music more than “A Song for Mama”, and the Soul Food hit was thankfully showcased in full here, preceding an awkwardly placed “Losing Sleep” (from 2014’s Collide).

Of course, the big one was saved for last (well, second-to-last) and the anticipation was obvious from the amount of people immediately wrapping their arms around each other, in reaction to the opening notes, like it was New Years Eve. We weren’t witnessing any physical fireworks though; we were hearing one of the most successful songs of all time, “End of the Road”, performed in full. While no one in the audience – at least around me – was exactly a Stavros Yiannoukas, the fans remained in perfect harmony with Shawn, Nathan, and Wanya as they belted out the iconic song and milked it for the spectacular effect it still has on people around the world.

“End of the Road” wasn’t the end of the set though, with them wanting something a bit more upbeat to leave us with. They could have either went with “Thank You” – which was criminally missing from the set list – but instead they brought back a slightly altered version of “Motownphilly” for good measure.

The sound was easily the most frustrating thing about the concert, but aside from some poorly executed Vegas-style showmanship, with average covers, Boyz II Men gave us a strong performance and one which will likely see a big reception each and every time they decide to come back for more – and let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Set List:

Me, Myself & I
Motownphilly
On Bended Knee
It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday
Please Don’t Go
Uhh Ahh
4 Seasons of Loneliness
Jamming/Thinking Out Loud/Smells Like Teen Spirit (Covers)
American Woman (Cover)
Diamond Eyes
Come Together (Cover)
Doin’ Just Fine
Open Arms (Cover)
Water Runs Dry
I’ll Make Love to You
A Song for Mama
Losing Sleep
End of the Road
Motownphilly (Alternate Version)