Live Review: Craig David, Ne-Yo & En Vogue bring the energy as “RnB Fridays Live” returns to Australia

Craig David has a new song about Instagram (it’s not good), TLC love Australia so much that they are coming back down under in 2018 (announced via a video package halfway through the gig), and Ne-Yo doesn’t nearly get the credit he deserves as a performer. These are just a few of the things we realised as RnB Fridays Live – now a seemingly annual event – rolled into Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena (AKA “whatever-the-fuck-it’s-called-now”) for a night of 90’s (and early to mid 2000’s) nostalgia, highlighting R&B-flavoured jams from En Vogue‘s classic catalogue of for-the-older-heads tracks to Sean Paul‘s overflowing bag of infectious dancefloor smashes.

If sales and reception have proved anything, it’s that these type of nostalgia acts are becoming increasingly popular for a generation who grew up at a time when pop radio was dominated by the older style of R&B; when Mario‘s “Let Me Love You” and Kelis‘ “Milkshake” would bang out of car sound systems all over Kings Cross on a Friday night. When Craig David’s Born To Do It became a very deserving certified classic and put the UK singer/emcee on high rotation for a couple of years. When everyone used Kazza and Napster and ICQ.

So it’s no surprise that this arena show was only the first one of two Sydney stops for the tour, which is driven by a live countdown of popular 90’s music videos in between sets, spun by DJ Horizon and hosted by Ash London and Fatman Scoop. It’s a nice way to keep the party flowing between sets, having a set number of slots (I assume fan-voted before the tour) dictate Horizon’s DJ set so the crowd is getting down to the likes of “Get Low” and “In Da Club” while the stage is dusted off for the next act.

Production is modest but the whole thing moves along smoothly and (relatively) on time, kicked off by shortened sets from Ruff Endz, Monifah, Christina Milian, and Mario. Who aren’t so much one-hit-wonder as they are one-hit-down-under acts, as they take the crowd back with songs like “No More” and “Touch It”. None of the four can hold a candle to the back catalogue of En Vogue though, with the three remaining members taking us through some true R&B classics like “Free Your Mind” and “Don’t Let Go”. The downside of this was the sound, which was at times atrocious and unbalanced, especially on the microphones so all three singers sounded off when it came to the big harmonies that drive most of these songs.

The sound didn’t fare much better with Kelis either, who made some poor choices like blending the otherwise excellent “Caught Out There” with “Got Your Money” and singing “Milkshake” over Wu-Tang‘s “Gravel Pit” before finally switching over to the original beat. Things improved when Kelly Rowland came out, flanked by two male dancers who worked the stage while she took us through a banging Destiny’s Child medley, the unbearably awful “Dilemma” and a confusing remix of her first single “Stole”; the highlight was, unsurprisingly, “Motivation”.

Though not quite moving up in stature, the slow-crawl to headliner Sean Paul continued with a switch to the quality (but slightly dated) hits of Ne-Yo. The difference here was the use of a live band, bringing a more organic sound as the instrumentals for tracks like “So Sick” and “Sexy Love” were recreated, stretched, reinterpretation and adapted to Ne-Yo’s undeniably charismatic style of performing. Hell, even “Come Closer” was taken from mildly cheesy pop-dance jam to endearingly smooth R&B, alongside songs which served to remind of Ne-Yo’s prolific songwriting talent: Rihanna‘s “Unfaithful” and Beyoncé‘s “Irreplaceable”.

Craig David was the wild card on the line-up, and with the UK singer enjoying somewhat of a resurgence it was interesting to watch his performance, which takes form of “TS5” – a curious blend between a DJ set and a live performance. Though it’s not enough to have a good concept behind you when the execution is off; R Kelly turning into “Rewind”, “Still D.R.E” mashed with “Walking Away”, “Rendezvous” sung to the tune of “One Dance” – it was too erratic and unfocused, with Craig’s strange choices seemingly geared towards crowd satisfaction than anything else. Though “7 Days” and “Fill Me In” were rightfully left untouched, and “One More Time” proved that the 36 year old artist still has a lot to give, attempts to connect to a younger generation like the confusing “For The Gram” (aforementioned song about Instagram) fell flat; very flat.

Leave it to headliner Sean Paul to pick the energy back up, reminding us just how infectious his bigger hits like “We Be Burning” and “Temperature” are – a nice cap to the night for those who were there to soak up the energy, of which there was plenty throughout the night.

En Vogue Set List

My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)
Whatta Man (Salt-N-Peppa Cover)
Free Your Mind
Don’t Let Go
I’m Good
Hold On

Kelly Rowland Set List

Like This
Work
Kisses Down Low
Conceited
Stole (Remix)
Destiny’s Child Medley (Say My Name/Soldier/Survivor/Independent Women/Cater 2 U)
This Is Love
Dilemma (Nelly Cover)
Ice
Motivation
When Love Takes Over (David Guetta Cover)/Clocks (Coldplay Cover)

Photo by Kerrie Geier.