Pop review: Boyz II Men mining sentimental territory

Their voices are a bit deeper and fuller, and there’s less reliance on vocal fireworks and more on lyric nuance and storytelling. But the trio Boyz II Men remain exponents of a very unique style. Even though their tenure now extends 21 years, their approach doesn’t reflect much, if any, of the musical influences that were either supreme or emerging when they began making their mark in the early ’90s. Instead, it’s one that nicely blends elements of 50s R&B (exquisite harmonizing) and’60s (shared leads) and ’70s (ardent sentimentality, soothing refrains) soul. Unlike many of their no longer active cohorts, Boyz II Men were also never consumed or undone by the ascension of hip-hop. They had some early hits with uptempo cuts, but lush, passionate material earned them their first number one in 1992, and it’s remained their trademark.

boyzIIThursday, they reaffirmed their place as ballad masters during the opening performance of a three-night engagement at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, capably supported by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. With tenors Wanya Morris and Shawn Stockman flawlessly switching roles within songs, and Nathan Morris adding robust baritone support, Boyz II Men generated more than ample vocal power. While encouraging a nearly capacity crowd to “do whatever you like to show you are having a good time,” their act was a little less flamboyant, but no less compelling. They also frequently coaxed many young women out of their seats and onto the floor closer to the stage, where their romantic lyrics proved appealing and engaging.

The 75-minute plus set had a number of high points. Both “The Color of Love” and “On Bended Knee” had a few rough moments, with the threesome getting acclimated to surroundings. But even then, their ability to power through the arrangements and execute soaring and memorable exchanges, kept the show intact. The minor problems that occurred in the initial stages disappeared by the time they got to crowd favorites like “On Bended Knee” and “I’ll Make Love To You.” What makes these songs work isn’t just the pinpoint timing and savvy demonstrated by Stockman and both Morrises. It’s the conviction they bring to the performances. “We’ve lasted all these years and gotten our star (they were given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January) because of you, and we really appreciate your buying all the records and bringing us into your homes,” Stockman said in a heartfelt aside to the audience, and they never wavered or lost intensity during the lengthy performance.

They saved their best performance for the mega-hit “I’ll Make Love To You,” which was accompanied by each member tossing roses into the crowd, or giving them to young women at the foot of the stage. Stockman and Wanya Morris hit some of their highest notes during the chorus, and the blends and group interaction proved even more emphatic. It generated their loudest response, plus a standing ovation which necessitated an encore. The last number was the song Nathan Morris said “has become kind of our signature tune, and feel free to sing along.” Thousands did throughout the main melody and the choruses of “End of the Road.”

The Nashville Symphony’s four-song, 45-minute opening set also had several memorable moments. William Walton’s multi-layered 1953 Orb and Sceptre Coronation March, began their set. That was followed by an energetic performance of Howard Hanson’s “Maypole Dances,” from Merry Mount, ironically a ’30s tune that was a musical response to the Salem Witch trials of the 17th century. Their finest and most poignant piece was Charles Fernandez’s “Soldier’s Farewell,” from The Statue. A tribute to fallen military warriors, the piece began in a somber fashion. But it was uplifted by an excellent solo from principal trumpeter Jeffrey Bailey. Conductor Albert-George Schram became even more enthused than usual during the set finale, Russell Peck’s The Thrill of the Orchestra. He used it as a forum to highlight and celebrate the Symphony, joyfully going from section to section, his face lighting up as each participated.

The Symphony section was elegant and superbly performed, providing a nice introduction to the equally outstanding vocal activity by Boyz II Men. Even though last year’s CD release “Twenty” wasn’t a big commercial hit, the response from Thursday’s audience showed they retain a sizable and enthusiastic following. Most encouraging was the positive reception that extended across all lines. Older patrons who might not seem the usual Boyz II Men audience enjoyed them as well as the younger crowd and urban radio crew. It showed there are still plenty of folk who enjoy excellent singing, and they got plenty of it from Boyz II Men Thursday night.

If you go

Boyz II Men performs its hits with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14 and Saturday, Sept. 15 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $54 to $139. Call 687-6400 or go to www.nashvillesymphony.org.

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About Ron Wynn

Ron Wynn is a music critic, author and editor. His features, reviews and articles have run locally in the Nashville Scene, The City Paper (Nashville) and on ArtNowNashville.com among others. Wynn is currently sports editor for the Tennessee Tribune and a contributor to Jazz Times. He is former editor of the New Memphis Star and former chief jazz and pop music critic for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Wynn has contributed to such publications such as Billboard, The Village Voice, Creem, Rock & Roll Disc, Living Blues, The Boston Phoenix, and Rejoice. He was the editor of the first edition of The All Music Guide to Jazz (1994), and from 1993 to 1994 served as the jazz and rap editor of the All Music Guide. Wynn is the author of The Tina Turner Story. He has contributed liner notes for numerous albums; his liner notes for “The Soul of Country Music” received a 1998 Grammy nomination.