To paraphrase Rick James, nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Simply look at the legion of fans who flocked to the Scotiabank Centre on Wednesday, May 24th (2017), who wanted to reclaim a small piece of their youth through the music of the 1990s. That’s largely been the modus operandi of crowds in Halifax; they will pack the room to the rafters for retro-acts like those who were headlining the I Love the ’90s Tour (or the recent Blue Rodeo or James Taylor shows), but for more recent acts such as Frank Turner, The Arkells or Billy Talent, the room is barely half-full.
The excitement surrounding this show was undeniable: even on a Wednesday night, there was a party atmosphere in the room, moms & daughters, BFF’s, unofficial high-school reunions were in full effect as the Haligoons in attendance were treated to the hits from acts such as Freedom Williams (C + C Music Factory), Young MC, Biz Markie, Color Me Badd, All 4 One, Rob Base, and the evening’s headlining act, Salt n’ Pepa. It was certainly a night to break out some vintage overalls, a neon-drenched shirt and a trusty scrunchy. This was not your typical concert, as it felt far more akin to a junior high dance or a Much Dance Party.
Kicking the night off was a little game show action, as 10 folks were plucked from the audience and welcomed on stage where they were then tasked with naming the television program based on some well-known television theme songs. Winners were awarded with the opportunity to join Salt n Pepa onstage during the group’s set later in the evening, and the losers were asked to leave the stage immediately. It was fun way to kick off the proceedings before Freedom Williams made his way to the stage.
When Williams hit the stage, I fully expected him to be the emcee of the evening as he was sporting a classic St Louis Cardinals starter jacket and didn’t have any band members with him. However, that notion was quick assuaged when the C&C Music Factory emcee worked through his well-known catalogue of work. It was a brief set, and after Making Things (like the crowd) go Hmmmmm, and promising to make us sweat, the Brooklyn-born emcee made a few folks in the audience uncomfortably cringe with some crude hand gestures and tongue motions. It ultimately tarnished an otherwise enjoyable performance.
Honestly, for this show I should have worn a shirt that stated “I’m Just Here for “Bust a Move””. Throughout my youth, my soundtrack included some of the Young MC “hits”, so much so that I wore out my cassette of Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’. I was somewhat disappointed when Marvin Young hit the stage and started pushing his directorial debut on the film Justice Served (released in 2015), in which he also starred. I know the test of time doesn’t treat us well, but c’mon man, you’re performing for a legion of folks who grew up on your music, at least give us the impression that you care. Mr Young hit the stage in track pants and an ill-advised Fox Vicious motocross jersey, and worked through some lesser-known tunes before breaking out “Bust a Move”, which sounded great. Mr. Young had a little time left, so he tore into “Fastest Rhyme” which flowed perfectly, even if it required a break between verses.
Then it was time for the emcee they call Biz. The only working knowledge I had of Biz Markie’s catalog was of his well-known hit “Just a Friend”, so this was a set I had little to no expectation for. To my surprise and delight, this was probably my favourite set of the entire evening, as Biz was charming, funny, a bit left of centre, and had a great time performing for the appreciative Halifax crowd. It was amazing to see the passion and enjoyment Biz still gets from busting out a song that is older than some of those folks in attendance. We were also treated to an impromptu Prince tribute as Biz ripped off his sweatshirt to reveal a RIP shirt featuring Prince’s iconic symbol. It was a fun set that kept the crowd moving and grooving along.
Once Biz wrapped his set, it was time for hip-hop to take a backseat while the pop/R&B sound took the wheel for a bit. First up was one of the giants of the era, Color Me Badd. The line-up on stage in Halifax looked a bit different, as only two original members remain (Bryan Abrams and Mark Calderon), and the newest member Adam Emil rounds out the trio. While they have lasted the test of time (with some bumps along the road), Color Me Badd still sounds like the band we all grew up listening to, while they may not quite look the same. Again, the crowd swooned when the Oklahoma-based band broke out their big singles “I Wanna Sex You Up”, “All 4 Love” and “I Adore Mi Amor”.
The other thing of note, was that Color Me Badd was one of the first bands to break out covers from other notable acts of the era, as they broke into a little “Motownphilly” by Boys II Men, and “No Diggity” by Blackstreet. I found it was a great way to keep the party moving along, and got the crowd moving, however in the days following the event, there has been increasing grumbling about the number of covers that were performed. Had the catalogues of these bands been deeper, I could understand the validity of the arguments, but for some acts they only had 2-3 “hits” and had to find ways of extending their stage time.
Next on the bill was the one of only two bands that featured all four original members, and the only band who rode a cover to the top of the charts. California pop/R&B act All-4-One hit the stage with a cheesy choreographed performance, with each member poised behind their own mic and performing a synchronized dance routine. This was a set that did feature the band’s cover (and best known song) of John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear” and some of the best vocal harmonies of the night, but it was a saccharine-drenched affair. While it was a bit ham-fisted (right down to tossing roses out to the crowd), the band appeared to be having a great time on stage, and genuinely wanted to be there. It was that bona fide enjoyment that earned my respect, even if I had to see a dentist afterwards.
Fortunately, that was the end of the pop/R&B interlude, as it was time for Harlem emcee Rob Base and his hype-man Kyle Rifkin (taking the spot alongside Base, formerly held by the late DJ EZ Rock). It was a set that was largely built around Base’s banter and his two mega hits “Joy and Pain” and “It Takes Two”, but the room exploded when these tracks dropped, but unfortunately Base’s set was largely unremarkable outside of these two songs, as the night was starting to feel long and you could feel there was a degree of energy conservation occurring in the room.
It was finally time for the First Ladies of hip-hop, Salt n Pepa, to take the stage. In looking at the setlist that was taped to the stage, the set would consist of 11 tracks leading into the finale of a trifecta of Salt-n-Pepa hits “Push It”, “Shoop” and “Whatta Man”. While the first 8 tracks could be considered deeper, lesser-known cuts, the ladies Cheryl “Salt” James, Sandra “Pepa” Dalton, and Spinderella sounded great. They danced and cavorted with their backup dancers for most of the set, at points making way for the ladies to receive a lap-dance or two. While Salt-N-Pepa broke out in the late ’80s/early ’90s, time has largely been kind to the band, as they sound as good as you remember, and were in fine form on the Scotiabank stage.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the backbone of the band’s sound was thanks in large part to the talented Spinderella who was manning the ones and twos, and her DJ set towards the later part of the set was fun, and her enjoyment of playing air guitar during Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was infectious. It would have been nice to see those final 3-4 tracks sprinkled throughout the set, however the crowd was willing to rally and party along with those classic cuts.
All in all, the show may have been staged as a concert, but it was more akin to a Dance Party with your friends. There were legions of fans who reveled in the nostalgia of the classic hits, and seeing some of their favourite acts, but there were others who may have missed the point of the event and griped about the number of covers performed, or that the acts didn’t sound as good as they used to. I’m sure the number of folks who enjoyed themselves far outweighed those who want to pick apart the entire night. It would be great to see the show return to town with a few other ’90s greats, and if they return, you can bet that we’ll be there to revel in that sweet, sweet nostalgia with you.