“The Other Two Degrees.” 98 Degrees Return to Motor City Casino’s Sound Board for “At Christmas” Redux

My favorite moment of last night’s 98 Degrees “At Christmas” show at MotorCity Casino Hotel’s Sound Board (which was a fab continuation of last year’s holiday concert) occurred when their handler dubbed John and me “the other two degrees” after snapping the above pic. I’ll take that!

We also got to meet IRL superfan Kelly, heretofore only a Twitter pal. She is an absolute doll, and we loved chatting with her during the pre-show activities. And we caught up with my former colleague Sam and met his lovely wife Courtney who is a lifelong fan but had never had a chance to see the group live. 98 Degrees bringing the world together!

This year’s show is a continuation of last year’s “At Christmas,” which had a more nuanced and varied approach than this year’s offering. It’s a shame they cut last year’s highlight cover of Joni Mitchell’s chilling “River.” Conversely, I don’t ever need to hear “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in this lifetime again.

Nonetheless, the boys continue to have a ball at this career mid-point, loose and fluid and fun. Imagine if the third string of your high school football team suddenly gave up sports for the glee club. If you catch the show, splurge for the VIP meet and greet. The boys’ mic check and Q&A are authentic, frisky and kind-hearted, and the photo op interaction reveals how grateful and down-to-earth these dudes are.

Review of last year’s show here: https://reelroyreviews.com/2017/12/18/boy-bands-who-dance-make-more-money-98-degrees-let-it-snow-concert-at-detroits-sound-board-plus-the-barn-christmas-cabaret-blaine-fowler-and-christmas-story-live/

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Boy Bands who dance make more money.” 98 Degrees’ “Let It Snow” concert at Detroit’s Sound Board – PLUS, The Barn Christmas Cabaret, Blaine Fowler, and Christmas Story Live!

98 degrees 2

“Boy Bands who dance make more money,” 98 Degrees’ Nick Lachey observed wryly during a pre-show Q&A at Detroit’s Sound Board in the Motor City Casino on Sunday, December 16. The band was in town with their holiday music tour At Christmas, supporting their recent album Let It Snow. This is their second volume of Christmas tunes, the first being 1999’s This Christmas.

Nick’s answer followed a question about what the 40-somethings (Nick Lachey, his brother Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons, and Justin Jeffre) would say if they could talk to their younger selves 20 years ago during the band’s seminal days. The other band member answered variations of “just enjoy this, don’t worry so much, and have fun.” Nick’s answer got the biggest laughs for candor and practicality. He surmised, if only he’d allowed himself to be choreographed more or dangle from a trapeze or do back flips, he’d have Justin Timberlake’s career. (Ironic, since his brother Drew was an early winner on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.)

It was this very inclusive humility that made the boys-to-middle-aged-men so endearing Sunday night. At the mid-point in most pop music careers, there seem to be three doors from which to choose: 1) recycle your own hits before smaller-and-smaller venues; 2) start cranking out “standards collections” (do we really need any more covers of “Someone to Watch Over Me”?); 3) grab a particular holiday and ride the wheels off it (thank you, Perry Como). 98 Degrees have wisely chosen the last option which suits their bromantic ski-lodge cocoa-sipping aesthetic very nicely.

We wisely chose the “VIP upgrade” Sunday night which afforded us a sound check performance, the aforementioned Q&A, a photo op meet-and-greet, and a thoughtfully arrayed “swag bag” (autographed poster, ornament, etc.). I would recommend that to anyone seeing them live. Behind-the-scenes (as well as onstage) they were self-effacing, gracious, and altogether charming. I suspect this hard-earned humility came from years of living in- and out-side the spotlight, both as a vocal group that was generally and unfairly overshadowed by Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC and as solo reality television stars (chagrined George Burns-esque hubby Nick, gold-plated hoofer Drew, and Magic Mike-ish Svengali Jeff) and occasional politicians (thank you, progressive Justin).

As for the show? It’s pretty exceptional. The winsomeness on display informally is manifest in a stage presence that is professional and rehearsed, inclusive and loose and confidently casual, with nary a hint of swagger, and with an authentic appreciation for the fact that people in the audience are still willing to shell out some cash at the holidays to see these Cincinnati kids sing and (sort of) dance. (This is actually our third time seeing them live – once in 2000, and during their first reunion tour in 2013.)

Backed by a strong rhythm section, keyboards, and backing vocalists, 98 Degrees breeze through two hours of holiday music and greatest hits, including a daffy and endearing Disney medley that includes their Stevie Wonder duet from Mulan “True to Your Heart” as well as a take on “Let It Go” (Frozen) that only proud, lightly woke Gen X fathers-of-young-daughters could perform and a breathtaking “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.

“Little Drummer Boy” gets a much needed beat-box refresh; Joni Mitchell’s “River” becomes a sonorous but no less poignant pop anthem; “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (which we learned was their Motown Records audition song twenty years ago) is given new life as a creamy and rich a cappella number; and their own hit “Una Noche” gets a fizzy infusion of “Feliz Navidad.”

I’m not a fan of holiday music. I think it’s all been run into the ground, and any time a new carol comes along, department store Muzak and pop radio eviscerate its novelty within mere minutes of its arrival. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing “Mary, Did You Know?” or “Run Rudolph Run” sincerely delivered by capable vocalists taking the music but not themselves too seriously.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. If these boys dedicate their remaining swoon-worthy days to a career of cardigans and holiday doo wop, I’ll gladly follow along. And that is totally unlike me, so well done, lads, well done.

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While I’m recommending holiday (and other) entertainment …

We saw the Barn Theatre’s holiday cabaret during its opening weekend and really enjoyed it. Maybe I’m not such a Grinch after all. From talented critic and pal Marin Heinritz –  “It all feels like an intimate family affair — the way we perhaps imagine the holidays to be in our dreams, where everyone is beautiful and happy and talented and welcome; and folks full of love and cheer get together to make merry and shine bright in honor of something much larger than us.” Read her review here.

And my buddy Blaine Fowler, host of the daily Blaine Fowler Morning Show, released a great album 49783 on iTunes and Amazon about a month or so ago in time for his birthday. I’ve been listening to it for awhile, and as I mentioned to him in a text, “Loving it! I’m hearing the influences of Led Zeppelin, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Corey Hart, Rush, a little Maroon 5, Bryan Adams, and The Kinks. Yet, uniquely your own. Production is polished where it should be and rough hewn and funky where not. Your voice is featured nicely as well with catchy at times haunting melodies and heartfelt lyrics.” Check it out!

And because we were at the concert last night, I have not had a chance yet to watch Fox’s live broadcast of A Christmas Story: The Musical – directed by Scott Ellis (She Loves Me, Mystery of Edwin Drood), in fact, the uncle of Blaine Fowler’s cohost Lauren Crocker.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton offered her enthusiastic take: “It was excellent and clever and added some sensitive-oriented stuff. Great Busby Berkeley-type numbers. Loved all of the three main women and Matthew Broderick…clever use of him to the max. The little boy looks like Jane Krakowski but she makes a darling teacher and Maya and Ana are great. Bully boy quite interesting…little brother looks like Ned Beatty. The story being musicalized gives it true zing.” It got Susie’s seal of approval! I look forward to catching up with this one later this week on the DVR.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Ring a ding ding! A new Rat Pack’s in town: Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake at Detroit’s Ford Field

Look, ma! Their stage!
[Photo by Author]

Niece Gabby before the big show
[Photo by Author]

Have you ever seen a concert that’s just so good that there isn’t much to say about it?

Me neither. But I did last night.

Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z’s tour-de-force concert Legends of the Summer hit Detroit’s Ford Field last night with the gale force of a hurricane. It was a marvel. And it was so good…for once I’m at a loss for words. Or at least a loss for quips.

Timberlake with guitar…and a very large peace sign. [Photo by Author]

I’ve seen a lot of concerts this year, for some reason – P!nk, Suzanne Vega, Shania Twain, New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees, BoyzIIMen – and I enjoyed them all thoroughly. They all pale in comparison to this show.

Why? For one, there were no flying motorcycles, no gymnastic feats, no flying saucers, no aerial acts, no trapeze artists, and no horses. (Well, I will say, I thought the two live horses at Shania’s show were pretty amazing and really sweet.) There was just music and the joy of performing… though admittedly the lacquered red rectangle of a set that turned into a million different light projections was a nifty technical addition.

The D brings folks together! Surprised to find a former co-worker seated nearby [Photo by Author]

Timberlake and Jay-Z shared the stage about 70% of the time, and, reminiscent of the Rat Pack vibe that Timberlake has been rather successfully co-opting for about a half dozen years, the two swells bounced off each other musically, complementing each other’s showmanship beautifully.

Neither performer missed a beat as they sailed through nearly 40 songs in about two and a half hours. The show is briskly paced and does not bore for one second.

Timberlake, who used to suffer a bit from the “hey look what I can do now” curse of too many child performers (and of a couple of show choir show-boaters I avoided during high school), has mellowed at the ripe old age of 32 (!). He moves effortlessly from piano to keyboard to vocal to dance with finesse and surety, his former overeagerness having transitioned beautifully to a playful confidence.

Tiger stage projection during Jay-Z performance
[Photo by Author]

And Jay-Z (who I think is about my age) was like the elder statesman – Martin or Sinatra to Timblerake’s Sammy? I don’t know his music as well as I do Timberlake’s and I’m not always nuts about hip hop (with the shining exception of my fascination with Kanye West) but Jay-Z made me a convert. He approached his rhymes like a jazz musician who isn’t afraid of melody. He swoops and glides and compels the audience to hang on to every word. Mesmerizing.

The show was a graduation present of sorts for our niece as she heads off to college, and I could tell that it was just the right send off. She was on cloud nine during the nearly hour-long departure from the stadium. For once, the exiting crowd was a fun extension of the evening as opposed to a burden as everyone seemed euphoric.

That big red stage…kinda looked like a Target store display [Photo by Author]

(One notable exception being the truly obnoxious inebriated Kardashian clones seated immediately behind us during the whole show. Note to future concert-goers: just because you have floor seats does not give you the right to keep pushing your chairs against the patrons in the next row. Thank goodness for the sweet folks in front of us, who, sensitive to our plight, moved their seats up to give us more room.)

Yup, kids, there’s a new Rat Pack in town and it’s led by Jay-Z and JT. They only have a few shows left this summer. Don’t miss ’em! (And lookee there…guess I did have something to say after all…and even a quip or two!)

An instantaneous, good-hearted sense of community: The Package Tour with New Kids on the Block, 98 Degrees, and BoyzIIMen

[Image by author]

Time plays such strange tricks with the mind. It feels like a week ago that I was in eighth grade hearing New Kids on the Block’s signature hit “Hangin’ Tough” for the first time. Or two days ago when BoyzIIMen’s “Motownphilly” rocketed across my car radio in college. Or yesterday when 98 Degrees (and an equally neophyte Christina Aguilera) contributed those requisite, catchy, and sometimes extraneous two bonus pop songs at the end of a mid-90s Disney animated musical, in this case Mulan.

Don’t even get me started on Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson’s more entertaining-than-it-had-any-right-to-be reality hit show Newlyweds…and, alas, we all know how that one turned out. They were doomed the moment Jessica feigned confusion over what “Chicken of the Sea” actually was. In her defense, it is a very odd and rather disgusting brand name if you think about it.

So last night The Package Tour with BoyzIIMen, 98 Degrees, and New Kids on the Block (now saddled with the unfortunately cumbersome, test-marketed acronym NKOTB) at the Palace of Auburn Hills was a surreal though vibrantly fun evening of music and wistful nostalgia.

BoyzIIMen [Image by author]

Neither these 40-something-year-old “boy band”-ers (wow, what a dumb genre name) nor their audience (myself included) are getting any younger. The singers still power gamely through the hits, even if the lyrics now make them (and us) wince a bit, and they move as if their knees and joints aren’t aching like heck. I found it difficult just to stand for three hours; I can’t imagine if I had been jumping from one fog-encased, hydraulic moving platform to the next.

Evening openers BoyzIIMen were the strongest vocally, singing many of their hits a cappella without one sour note, truly amazing in an arena the size of the Palace filled to the rafters with screaming fans.

Us with 98 Degrees [Image from VIP Nation]

98 Degrees were charming as well. We had the added benefit of attending a meet and greet with the group before the show. They were gracious and authentic and kind to all. I was suitably impressed by how “un-star-like” they all were. As when I saw Shania Twain in Las Vegas a few months back, sat on the front row, and bonded with now friends Mike G. and Linda and Randy K., the close proximity to celebrities created an instantaneous, good-hearted sense of community.

Us with “Super Fan” Katy from Cadillac
[Image by author]

We befriended a 98 Degrees/NKOTB super-fan Katy from Cadillac, Michigan who showed us the meet-and-greet ropes. Why do I share this? As a testament to the band’s generosity of spirit, when Katy approached the table, Jeff Timmons, without missing a beat, shook her hand and said, “Hi Katy! Great to see you again! How is your son doing?” as if they were just catching up after running into each other in the produce aisle of their local grocery store.

And in performance, this audience connection carried over nicely. For about an hour, Timmons along with brothers Nick and Drew Lachey (a Dancing with the Stars champ) and sometime politician and Occupy Cincinnati activist Justin Jeffre (seriously, he was even arrested!) worked the crowd, winking at their latter day reality TV personae that have eclipsed their days as pop music icons.

NKOTB [Image by author]

The evening was efficiently produced with no delays between acts, so, when NKOTB took the stage promptly at 9 pm, the crowd was in a frenzy. Donnie Wahlberg seems to have taken his place as ringleader with all the dynamics we’ve seen in his acting (he’s actually better than brother Mark in my opinion) now on display in his musical efforts as well.

At times, it felt as if all the performers had watched Magic Mike a few too many times and had committed too much of Matthew McConaughey’s skeezy “hey ladies…” dialogue to memory. AND, minor quibble VIP Nation, but next time when folks sign up for the 98 Degrees “Meet and Greet” and you hand out the perfunctory gift bags, please have a few men’s t-shirts on hand. No matter how XXL the shirt, a woman’s tank top shirt is still a woman’s tank top shirt. And, no I’m not even using it when I do yard work.

As a sure sign that we were old and attending what was in essence an “oldies” concert, we left early. Not because we didn’t love the show. We did. But our feet were tired…and have you tried to get through that Palace traffic at the end of an evening?