July 30, 2023
Photo: Carey James
It was a sweltering July evening when the promise of cooling rain remained at bay but “lightning in the area” pushed the 6:00 p.m. doors back at PNC Music Pavilion for over an hour. Once they did open, however, it was a step back in time to the ‘90s. Slated to be one of the biggest R&B tours of 2023, the Summer Block Party featuring Dru Hill, SWV, and Jodeci kicked off in Charlotte on Friday night. The groups took to the stage with– wait for it– actual full-throated, flat-footed “sangin’.” In a world of copycat pop stars and studio-generated vocals, it was refreshing to hear performers who were clearly born with a talent that they honed in church on Sunday mornings.
At 8:00 p.m., Dru Hill (named after Druid Hill Park in their native city of Baltimore) graced the stage with a total of seven past and present members who have made up various iterations of the group over the years. Friends since middle school, original members Tamir (Nokio) Ruffin, Mark “Sisqó” Andres, James (Woody Rock) Green, and Larry (Jazz) Anthony initially performed gospel music before making the switch to R&B, propelling their careers.
Decked out in studded black leather with touches of red, the guys got the party started with a truncated version of the funkdafied So So Def remix of “In My Bed.” After providing a brief rendition of “Bad Mama Jama” by Carl Carlton, Dru Hill slipped into their 1996 debut single “Tell Me” from their eponymous first studio album with the same step-and-hop choreographed dance from the song’s music video. Even as sweat began to drip down their faces, it was clear Dru Hill did not come to play, and fans who were able to get through the gates early got a stellar performance.
During the breaks, DJ Shaun Nyce kept the party going by spinning ‘90s hits from artists like Brandy, Tevin Campbell, Usher, The Fugees, Mary J. Blige, 112, Total, and Carl Thomas. No time for sitting down here.
As nightfall brought about more comfortable temperatures, the three Sisters With Voices began living up to their name around 9:00 p.m. Clad in sparkly waist-cinching black jumpsuits, Cheryl “Coko” Gamble, Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George and Leanne “Lelee” Lyons quickly jumped into “Can We” from the 1997 movie, Booty Call.
With three black-clad back-up dancers moving in sync behind them, SWV shifted to “You’re the One” from 1996’s New Beginning, before slowing the tempo to “You’re Always on my Mind.” Bouncing between hits from their first three albums, “Use Your Heart” found the ladies resting on stools as they crooned into rhinestone microphones with the accompaniment of a live band, which featured Charlotte’s talented Shago Elizondo on guitar, who pulled double-duty, also playing with Jodeci. The trio then followed up with the sexy, melodious “Rain,” rounding out the balladry with “When U Cry” before the mid-tempo “It’s About Time” and the suggestive “Downtown.”
SWV’s Summer Block Party performance was a celebration of their 30 years in the business as each member took time individually to remind some (and perhaps prove to others) that all of them can sing very well.
SWV was not getting out of the building without a sing-along for “Weak,” and the group ended their set on a hype note with the popular “Anything” remix.
There was a time when male singing groups were “safe”– that is to say, they were the buttoned-up, meet-your-mama, boys-next-door types. Then came Jodeci. The Charlotte-formed quartet, whose group name is a consolidation of their individual ones, threw all of those benign notions out the window when they burst onto the scene in 1991 with Forever My Lady.
R&B’s resident rogues hit the stage to a thunderous roar from the hometown crowd. The quartet, consisting of two sets of brothers (Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey and Joel “JoJo” Hailey along with Donald “DeVanté Swing” DeGrate and Dalvin “Mr. Dalvin” DeGrate) began their serenade session with “Come and Talk to Me” and “Stay” from their debut album.
The made-for-a-wedding “Love U 4 Life” from their 1995 album, The Show, the After-Party, the Hotel, and the swoon-worthy extended “Forever My Lady” kept the crowd warmer than the temperature. With the peppy though lesser known “Gotta Love” speeding things back up, the foursome was off and running with their slow-grinding ways giving all the freaky feels on the West Coast-influenced “Alone” from Diary of a Mad Band in 1993.
Not particularly known for their dance routines, Jodeci takes a decidedly leisurely approach to entertaining when it comes to on-stage activity. Sure, the removing of shirts and gyrating of pelvises may be retired, or at least toned down, but fans who have grown up with the band and their music also seemed content to just let the songs’ sentiments do all the heavy lifting.
Never straying far from their roots, K-Ci and JoJo’s gospel-tinged intonations and ad-libs continue to carry Jodeci’s vocal load, hitting the crowd with several of their signature “Oooo yeahs!” throughout the show.
Thanks to timeless tunes, raw talent, loyal fans, and sheer determination, Dru Hill, SWV, and Jodeci demonstrated how they captured the culture of a generation and why they still resonate today.
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