At 8:20 Saturday night in the Mohegan Sun Arena, the lights went out and, to a vast roar of adoration from the sold-out crowd, five-sixth of the original New Edition hit the stage as part of their 30th anniversary reunion tour. Prom-night resplendent in white jackets and black tuxedo pants, the iconic New Jack Swing group kicked into a smoothly choreographed "If It Isn't Love."
The only one missing from the exultant scene was Bobby Brown.
Hours earlier, the singer had briefly attended the funeral of his ex-wife, Whitney Houston, in Newark, N.J. And though the band's PR team said Brown would be at the Sun date, Houston's death and the timing of the service — with tacit aknowledgement that his career has included bouts of erratic behavior — there was at least some anxiety over whether he would indeed show up.
But "If It Isn't Love" is a song from a NE album recorded after Brown originally left the band and, sure enough, after the opening three-tune medley, he walked onstage in a black Michael Corleone hat, a grateful smile on his face as 7,000 fans went nuts. He dove right into "Hit Me Off" and, with the Big Question answered, a sort of collective sense of relief settled over the arena. The party, so to speak, could get started in earnest.
Over 105 minutes and 22 songs, New Edition put on a tremendous show. There were plenty of ensemble hits including "Mr. Telephone Man," "Popcorn Man," "Candy Girl," as well as favorite moments from the solo careers of Brown, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant and the adjunct trio Bell Biv Devoe (Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe).
A high point came in a mock argument about whether Brown had originally quit the group or been fired. Brown insisted he left of his own accord, but Tresvant interrupted to say, "Michael called me and said, yo, B ain't gettin' the steps down right. We're leaving him home next tour."
This led to a dance-off, with Brown off to one side of the other five as they all adeptly hooved through "My Secret (Didja Get It Yet?)" from their second album. Say this: for dudes in their 40s, they're in terrific shape and their voices have held up remarkably well. Even the hard-living Brown sang with power, even if his tone has a rougher, aged quality.
Speaking of singing, the pan-demographic audience crooned along with virtually every imprinted tune, and 30 years seemed to melt away as though through the magic carpet ride of the band's harmonies and dance.
And perhaps it's just projecting, but Brown seemed to reflect a sense of bittersweet appreciation that he was onstage and part of it. He kept his between song remarks simple and heartfelt; he expressed blessings and gratitude not just to Houston but to loved ones and fans. There was also his signature touch of bravado, when he introduced himself by saying, "I go by the name of Bad-Ass Bobby Brown."
Right before the end, Brown's "My Prerogative" peeled the roof of the arena back like an anchovie tin and seismic shocks blew through the hall. Emotionally, all that remained, at that point, was for the sextet to perch on stools for a wonderfully tender finale, "Home Again."