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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 13 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 28
Soul survivors
Remembering the '90s with a little help from my friends
Arts & Entertainment
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Soul survivors
Remembering the '90s with a little help from my friends

by Aiden Klein - SGN A&E Writer

BOYZ II MEN/EN VOGUE/SALT-N-PEPA
TULALIP AMPHITHEATRE
July 7


I can't help but smile whenever I think about growing up in the 1990s. That is the decade I graduated high school and became a man. It was in those years that I first kissed a boy and felt the joy and heartache that comes with falling in love. I was devastated by my first breakup. I didn't want to eat, I couldn't sleep - it was all just too much. I thought I would die. But then the 'Top Seven at 7' came on the radio and those sweet and soulful sounds of R&B slowly brought me back to the land of the living. I was cured! Emotional ballads and a cappella harmony set me straight. Life would never be the same.

Fast-forward a decade (because really, who wants to relive the 2000s?) to the present day. Auto-Tune helps non-vocalists sound like real singers, and nonsensical lyrics and cheap gimmicks help sell digital downloads. Gone are the days of waiting for your favorite group's new CD to hit the record store so you could snatch it up and run home to listen to it on repeat until you knew every last word. Life is so fast now. You can't go back to that time and place in the '90s when life was simple and love was new - not even for just one night.

But on July 7, that's exactly what seemed to happen at the Tulalip Casino, when hip-hop and R&B legends Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue, and Boyz II Men kicked off the resort's summer concert series in front of a sold-out crowd at the Amphitheatre. Roughly 2,600 fans went back to a simpler place in time when Arsenio Hall was the first black man to have a talk show on network TV, RuPaul had never staged a drag race, and Bill Clinton was the first 'black' president.

Salt-N-Pepa, one of the first successful all-female rap crews, got the party started. Proving they've still got it, Salt-N-Pepa hyped up the crowd by performing a medley of their hits. Songs like 'Let's Talk About Sex' and 'Shoop' showed a nation of young black women and Gay men that there is power in owning one's sexuality.

Missing from the set (other than DJ Spinderella, who is no longer with the band) was the drag queen anthem 'I Am the Body Beautiful' from the 1995 hit movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. Perhaps even more noticeable was the absence of the hit song 'None of Your Business.' The line in that song, 'If I wanna take a guy home tonight, it's none of your business,' was my mantra back when I walked the halls of my high school as a closeted Gay teen in 1993.

Speaking candidly to the audience, Salt (Cheryl James) used the fallout from the group's squabble a few years ago as a teachable moment. She said that even though Salt-N-Pepa had disagreements, they were able to resolve them and move on.

'Life is too short to hold onto grudges,' she said, adding, 'Tomorrow is not promised.'

The duo closed their appearance with 'Push It.' In all, Salt-N-Pepa's set lasted just 30 minutes. But that didn't matter - it was great to see them both onstage doing what they do best, and allowing us the pleasure of being right there with them.

Few all-female vocalist groups can claim what the 'Funky Divas' of En Vogue can. They had more awards, nominations, and weeks on various charts than almost any other group in American music history. Billboard named them the 18th most successful act of the 1990s, and 'one of the most successful female groups of all time.' They had it all - the looks, the voice, and the talent - and we loved them for it. Their fans, myself included, are a loyal bunch. That fact was evident when the R&B group was welcomed to the stage by a standing ovation at the Amphitheatre.

Missing from the lineup were Dawn Robinson and Maxine Jones. Filling in for Jones was Rhona Bennett (who recorded with En Vogue on their fifth studio album, Soul Flower).

The trio got off to a great start with 'Love Don't Love You' followed by 'Riddle' from the 2003 album Masterpiece Theatre. There is something that happens to an audience when En Vogue performs and it is pure magic. The crowd's energy seemed to boil over.

After performing a few of their lesser-known hits, the ladies took the crowd on a journey through Diva history as they sang a medley of hits from female entertainers who had influenced their career, including everyone from Patti Labelle and Anita Ward to Tina Turner.

Terry Ellis then asked the crowd, 'Now who came out here to free their mind tonight?' before kicking into high gear with the anti-discrimination anthem, 'Free Your Mind.' And that's when the queens got to prancing up and down the aisles serving the crowd runway realness. From that moment on, the crowd stayed on their feet and belted out, with total accuracy, the words to every En Vogue song thereafter - causing the Divas to grin from ear-to-ear.

En Vogue closed their set with 'Don't Let Go (Love)' from the 1996 soundtrack to the motion picture Set It Off. The minutes-long standing ovation at the end of the song said it all. For many Gay men who came of age in the '90s, En Vogue's music spoke to our very soul. More than just songs, En Vogue's discography was a map that allowed us to safely navigate love, discrimination, and heartache to emerge older, wiser, and out and proud.

There is only one act from the '90s that could follow En Vogue and that is Boyz II Men - one of the most successful bands of all time, having sold more than 60 million albums worldwide. Currently the group is a trio, featuring baritone Nathan Morris alongside tenors Wanya Morris and Shawn Stockman.

Throughout the night Boyz II Men performed tracks off of the newly released album Twenty, named in recognition of the group's two decades in the music industry. In addition, they sang a few songs from the 2008 release Hitsville USA, a collection of covers, such as Journey's 'Open Arms.'

But that's not why we bought a ticket to the show. And they knew that.

When Boyz II Men sang the first lines of the 'On Bended Knee' a sense of nostalgia washed over me that would not leave for more than a day. I used to belt out the words of that song into a wooden spoon turned microphone. Unless I am thoroughly cocktailed, I wouldn't even dream of doing such a thing in my 30s. Back then though, none of that mattered because I thought Wanya Morris was singing to me and me alone, confessing his love '& down on bended knee.'

In between performances of some of Motown's biggest hit-makers like Marvin Gaye and the Temptations, Boyz II Men sang 'Water Runs Dry' and 'I'll Make Love to You' (as they passed out nearly 50 long-stem roses to the crowd). During 'A Song for Mama' I looked over at a woman sobbing uncontrollably and had no idea why she was overcome with emotion. I walked over, grabbed her hand and squeezed it. She looked up and mouthed the words 'thank you' and continued to sob. Later, she told me that her mother had recently lost her battle with breast cancer and 'A Song for Mama' had helped her to work through the loss. We sat together and watched the remainder of the show.

Closing the show on a high note, Boyz II Men chose 'Motown Philly' - the smash hit that introduced the band to the world.

The '90s were a decade of good music. And that music belonged to Boyz II Men. They stood for everything that was right in the world and sung songs about true love and commitment. Songs like 'End of the Road' are legendary for a reason - their message speaks to us all. While the case could be made that the music recorded by Boyz II Men is too big to contain within the confines of a decade, the group will be forever linked to the sometimes turbulent but often roaring 1990s.

When all was said and done and I had time to gather my thoughts on the drive back to Seattle, I felt like I had said goodbye to an old friend from high school. Because let's face it - Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue, and Boyz II Men were exactly that. They were there through it all, from bad fashion and class photos to prom night and graduation. The evening was more of a class reunion than a concert for many of us in attendance that night. And while 20-plus years have passed since we first met, when you are around old friends, it seems like just yesterday.

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Soul survivors
Remembering the '90s with a little help from my friends

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