Live Review: Keith Sweat and Teddy Riley bring a rare New Jack Swing throwback to Sydney

Is New Jack Swing still alive and kicking? It’d be hard to argue for the style’s viability in today’s market of crayon-rap and sparse, bass heavy and drug-addled R&B, but there’s no denying the nostalgic value of the genre and its various pioneers, two of which performed together for the first time in Australia at Sydney’s The Star Event Centre this past weekend. And as far as pioneers go, it doesn’t get any sweeter than having the legendary Keith Sweat in the house, with visionary Teddy Riley handling the polyphonic synths as part of his live band. A little local flavour was thrown in with pretty much the only act that makes sense opening for these guys, the recently reformed CDB, to round out what went down as a playful callback to when the R&B scene was vastly different from what it is today.

CDB were in fine form as the opening act, keen to show off their most recent album – essentially a collection of well-refined covers – and a few oldies to prove that they still have a place in the soundscape of 2017. There are very few quartets who have even attempted to mirror the kind of R&B that flowed out the states in the 90’s, and no one aside from these guys have managed to pull it off so well. Need proof? “Hook Me Up” sounded fantastic live, and the half-smooth, half-rough harmonies sounded fresh. Their performance only improved as they strutted into cover territory, taking tracks like “Let It Whip” (Dazz Band), “Can We Talk” (Tevin Campbell) and – their most well known cover – “Let’s Groove” (Earth, Wind & Fire) and owning them, sketching the shape of the originals but filling it with their own character.

I should have expected Keith Sweat to be introduced by an overly dramatic and tacky video package with a voice-over that managed to make all his album titles sound pretty damn creepy. It still threw me off-guard, as did the uneven sound that marred the R&B icon’s first few tracks, which start with “Make You Sweat” and continued into “(There You Go) Tellin’ Me No Again” and LSG’s “My Body”. Still, it was impossible to not be impressed by Sweat’s gravelly voice, which at 56 sounds just as crisp and clear as when he was at his peak. The band was quite valuable as well – no Teddy Riley at this point – with the talented drummer really pounding the dated production into something much more modern and organic. It still needed something though, which is why the performance didn’t really pick up until Sweat introduced Teddy Riley, who stood in all-white behind his (I think) Roland D50 to help transform these songs into true New Jack gems with loud, brash and playful synth lines.

Sweat even took a break to let Riley take the stage, really getting the crowd on their feet with a booming cover of Wreckx-n-effect classic “Rump Shaker” and a Roger Troutman-style voice box treatment to Hi-Five’s “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game)”.

Sweat’s performance seemed to pick up with that little break, coming out swinging for “Get Up On It” and making his way into the crowd for ballad “I’ll Give All My Love to You”. No response was as loud as that for a surprise cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” and smash hit “Twisted”, though that could be because those two songs broke a very awkward lull in the set in which Sweat spent ten minutes trying to get people to join him on stage to sit on two out-of-place couches.

The absence of one Athena Cage, Kut Klose or even just a female backup singer put a damper on the aforementioned “Twisted” and “Nobody”, though nothing was as odd as Sweat’s almost unwilling inclusion of “Make It Last Forever”, a classic which he seemed to have grown bored of, walking off stage while singing the hook and ending the show then and there, leaving Teddy Riley to plug the after party.

Set List

Make You Sweat
Don’t Stop Your Love
(There You Go) Tellin’ Me No Again
My Body
Just Got Paid (Johnny Kemp Cover)
I Like The Way (Hi-Five Cover; Teddy Riley Solo)
Rump Shaker (Wreckx-n-effect Cover; Teddy Riley Solo)
Get Up On It
I’ll Give All My Love To You
Freak Me (Silk Cover)
Keep It Comin’
No Diggity (with Teddy Riley)
Twisted
Nobody
I Want Her
Make It Last Forever (one verse)