"Who goes to a New Kids on the Block show at the rodeo in 2023?" a colleague asked this last week in the days leading up to the boy band turned man band's long-awaited debut at RodeoHouston on Tuesday, March 7 at NRG Stadium.
The kids at the shows in the late ‘80s, but now with more money for band merch and even more squirreled away for concession stand wine, that's who. The ones who re-emerged after washing off decades of grunge and nu-metal to support a reunion in 2008, which continues to roll on unabated, subtlety evolving from a lark into a touring entity with longevity.
"Think of what The Beach Boys must have looked like to us on Full House in 1988," I responded. “I’m pretty one of them is even a grandpa now.” (That would be NKOTB's Danny Wood, who became a New Grandpa On the Block in 2019.)
Welcome to the snarling realization that 1988 was literally 35 years ago.
On Tuesday night -- the officially unofficial ‘Ladies Night’ of the Rodeo’s 2023 season -- New Kids On the Block were greeted by tens of thousands of screaming eternal teens coming in hot from the rodeo wine garden, some with teenaged daughters — or gasp — granddaughters in tow to show them what all the fuss is still about Donnie Wahlberg and Joey McIntyre.
One of them was Jennifer Kirik, 43, who drove in from the Houston suburbs on Tuesday with a friend to explore the city and stay at her favorite hotel downtown. Just after 5 pm she was on the METRORail heading south to NRG Park in her finest NKOTB shirt, ready to experience the group for first time since she was in seventh grade, nearly 31 years ago. She’s forever and always a Jordan Knight girl.
“Tonight is all about reliving our childhoods,” Kirik giggled as the rail car winded past the medical center and into the neon and barracades at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“It’s going to be a lot of middle-aged women in ‘90s makeup,” she said, eyes flittering with glitter.
Kirik’s said that her parents saw one of the preeminent teen idols, Elvis Presley, decades ago as his life and career were coming to an end. The middle-aged idols on the space-age stage in NRG Stadium aren’t showing any signs of severe arterial damage or banana sandwich sweats, thankfully.
The men in New Kids on the Block, once famously the bane of Bill Hicks' existence, have survived to dance for a few more decades, albeit just a little more slowly and with more medically prescribed intention. With advances in medical science, today’s teen heart throbs could be tomorrow’s lunar casino entertainment. ("Live! Tonight at the Aquarius Crater Grand Casino: Justin Bieber and his Family Band!")
The five-man band hit the revolving stage just before 9:30 pm, ensconced in Gap Band-style black leather cowboy duds, welcoming NKOTB nation back to the “Block Party” and making use of the revolving stage’s five points.
OG bad boy Donnie Wahlberg got his first showcase of the night with “Cover Girl”, stalking the starred stage, and if you squinted you’d think Monday night’s headliner Jason Aldean had missed his tour bus and crashed at the stadium overnight. Never underestimate the magic of of a middle-aged Wahlberg wiggling his ass and polite abs on a Tuesday night.
Think “Magic Mike & His Crossfit Buddies” and you have the rough idea. The minimal choreography for “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” hasn’t changed much since the second Reagan administration because if it’s been working this long, why change it?
Wahlberg — admittedly my favorite New Kid — shouted out the group’s last Astrodome visit in 1990 before launching into “Please Don’t Go Girl”. The engrained East Coast sentimentality and polite dance school brooding that made the New Kids such a cultural touchstone still makes thousands scream.
The band dispersed throughout the stadium’s fencing during “Tonight” to get up close and personal with the crowds, posing for selfies bound for Instagram and awarding hugs and accepting sweaty facial maulings. An oldies medley of Cyndi Lauper, Bell-Biv Devoe, Whitney Houston, AC/DC, and Bon Jovi turned NRG into a chaotic karaoke bar for a few minutes, before Wahlberg toasted the Houston Astros with “Deep In The Heart of Texas,” a bold move for a Red Sox fan.
A version of Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” brought back the “Magic Mike” vibes with a cameo from Houston’s own Tio Choko as a chaser.
The exact emotions may be different now, and the registers aren’t as high as 1988. The full-throated screams on Tuesday night weren't because Joey McIntyre might pick you out from a crowd of thousands and take you out for a slice of pepperoni pizza at the food court and a shopping spree at Dillard's.
It's because it's been more than 35 years and we've survived to be in the same room together once again. Hopefully, the graying Joey would be down for a Sunday afternoon trip to Target for linens, a bottle of decently priced wine, a foot rub, and a few episodes of The Last Of Us.
--- Concert review by Craig Hlavaty