Motown Philly came to DC full-blast as the best-selling R&B group of all time, Boyz II Men graced the Concert Hall stage of The Kennedy Center on Friday, May 20, 2016, accompanied by the dynamic National Symphony Orchestra under principal pops conductor, Steven Reineke. The iconic Boyz II Men blended their fine-tuned harmonies in a quiet storm of chart-topping hits that have made them legendary. In concert with the outstanding musicianship of the NSO, this sold-out show was like fine wine that’s sipped, savored, and goes down mellow and smooth—real smooth.
Boyz II Men are master balladeers and their dreamy R&B transcended genres as the National Symphony Orchestra’s classic accompaniment raised II’s timeless ballads to a new level of grandeur. NSO’s sweeping opening overture was also a panoramic testament in song to many memorable melodies that we have come know and to love in Boyz II Men’s Grammy Award-winning musical career of the past 25 years.
Rich and soft, slow and mellow, “Oh Well,” the group’s opening song was a four-count beat that crescendoed to dramatic heights. Wanya added a dip and waltz putting a little soft-shoe from his recent stint on Dancing with the Stars to good use. The crowd roared in decibels well above the normally polite Kennedy Center clap and someone joked that Wanya should have won the mirror ball trophy! And even though Shawn Stockman, Wanya Morris, and Nate Morris were bow-tied and tuxed for the occasion, the night was not one for staying in one’s seat or restraining the urge to croon with II. Matter of fact, Shawn encouraged the audience to sing along, wave hands high in the air, or two-step your darling in the aisles if the spirit hit you. And they did!
The crowd went wild as Wanya literally got down on one knee as Shawn took the lead-in “On Bended Knee,” a Billboard best. Boyz II Men is different as singing groups go, in that there’s no single solo lead. Each singer takes the lead depending on the song so you get to hear their fine voices individually as well as in harmony. II has a unique way of layering and interweaving their sound to create a pleasing arrangement of single voices that masterfully blend into one harmonious musical narrative.
A melancholy but magical strain about hoped-for love, “The Girl in the Life Magazine” was a lesser-known tune that gave Wanya a chance to dramatically emote the words as Nate sang lead. Synchronized vibratos, Nate’s deep bass and the NSO’s heavy drum beat made “Water Runs Dry,” still a hit for all times. Nate sang a glass-breaking falsetto and then descended full throttle into a deep-throat bass on “I Will Get Thee” with Wanya wailing in the background.
Following an intermission, the NSO was heavy on snare drums as it prepped the crowd for the second half of the show with an exciting overture to “Your Home Is in My Heart.” Wanya’s lead on the emotionally-charged “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” definitely raised the temperature in the room with screams for more. Shawn brought the crowd back to its senses with his tranquil lead on “Open Arms.” Nate took center stage doing an unanticipated piano and vocal solo to Lionel Ritchie’s classic “Easy” while a fine trumpet solo from the NSO corps added creative phrasing on the part that’s usually played by guitar.
The showstopping “I’ll Make Love to You” was strictly for the ladies and a stampede of women that would put the bulls of Pamplona to shame ran charging down the aisles of the Concert Hall from every direction surrounding the stage as II threw long-stemmed red roses to any lady lucky enough to catch one.
And who can resist a mother’s love. “A Song for Mama,” dedicated to all the mothers in the house, was irresistible as Wanya flexed his penchant for the comically dramatic and invited a motherly looking lady from the balcony to join him on the side of the stage: It was Wanya’s mother! She affectionately cradled Wanya’s head in a Mama bear hug for the duration of this song. The crowd loved it, particularly when she rubbed Nate’s bald pate while he sang in wailing protestations of mother love.
A fellow native of Philadelphia, I was real proud of my homeboys, but I wanted to hear them sing a cappella for at least one full song. Because no one can harmonize a cappella like Boyz II Men. It’s their signature sound. And a set list of some of their best masterpiece ballads had a sameness of tempo that could have been pitched up a notch for variety by adding a few of their faster paced songs.
It was also interesting to hear an orchestral musical arrangement in tandem with R&B. It worked beautifully as the orchestra brought out new nuances of the R&B sound making a strong musical statement about the potential of mixing genres. But at times the 75-strong NSO pops was a tad loud for the winsome threesome. Nevertheless, in keeping with the NSO’s commitment to create diversity in American composition, the combination of musical tones produced something that felt wonderful and new.
The full-bodied, rich and tenderly melodic voices of Boyz II Men are a uniquely satisfying experience. It’s music that gets you in the gut. And Nate spoke for the group when he told the audience that Boyz II Men II will continue to try to teach the next generation what true music is by singing real, honest, special, true music because the next generation is losing true music.
“So Amazing” was a fitting finale for an amazing evening of 17 of the some of the best songs ever sung. And the “End of the Road” encore brought the house down as it brought an intoxicating evening of song to an end.
Boyz II Men forever!
Running Time: 2 hours, with a 20-minute intermission.