TAMPA — Right in the middle of Candy Girl, a giddy New Edition classic about youthful vigor, Bobby Brown started sucking major wind. He heaved and smiled and shook his head, barely mimicking the choreographed slickness of his thinner, healthier bandmates. Time and tabloids and drug abuse have taken a toll on the 43-year-old trouble magnet.
And yet, as Whitney Houston's headline-prone ex-husband tends to do, Brown persisted.
For all the pinchy-cheeked silliness of a boy band in its prime, there's something rather profound about one past its sell-by date. Even the mightiest of them — for instance, the Beach Boys, who play the Straz Center tonight — can't avoid the inevitable encroachment of human frailty, no matter how sunny their songs.
And yet it's that persistence, in the face of it all, that makes reunion shows so oddly fulfilling, especially for fans who have lived lives equally, and naturally, touched by turbulence.
The once incandescent New Edition, fully reunited at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Friday, started in Boston in the early '80s as wee know-nothing pups. Their sparkly R&B hits (Cool It Now, Mr. Telephone Man) are about loves lost and found, and all these years later, the men can still deliver them with earnest gusto, if not the same prepubescent high notes.
The group's success is now very much overshadowed by Brown's smudged aura, most recently a DUI arrest and a tense interview with Matt Lauer. But give NE credit for slyly playing into Brown's rapscallion ways, keeping him off the stage for a few opening songs (including the still-shimmering If It Isn't Love), and then finally bringing him on to a wild ovation, a tease that left some wondering if he would be a no-show.
"I know I haven't been easy to support," Brown later told the small crowd of 3,841, whom he thanked for supporting "the Brown family and the Houstons." "But I got seven and a half years clean from narcotics."
And then, because the man just can't resist: "I didn't say alcohol though!"
Thankfully for the tuckered Brown, who had trouble keeping up for most of the two-hour show, the rest of the group has kept in good shape: Ronnie DeVoe, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill, the latter of whom replaced Brown when he left the group for solo fame in 1986. In between all the NE stuff, Gill and Tresvant dusted off solo hits, and Bell Biv Devoe, an offshoot of the supergroup, uncorked Do Me! and, to a wildly calisthenic degree, Poison, that No. 1 girl-bashing slam that still packs grooving bite.
There was a pretty good running joke about how Brown can't keep up with the rest of the group, but his midrange growl still has sexy bedroom edge to it. If you don't remember how dominant the guy was in the late '80s and '90s, his loyal brothers in song still do. Near the end of the show they started chanting in unison: "When I say Bobby, you say Brown!"
And with that, the big fat bass kicked in, and so did My Prerogative. Standing still as his mates moved around him, the guy forever in the spotlight asked: "Everybody's talking all this stuff about me / Why don't they just let me live?"
With the unsinkable Bobby Brown, that remains a rhetorical question.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.