Early last year, “The New Edition Story,” a song-filled melodrama chronicling the triumphs and struggles of the Roxbury-born boy band, aired on BET to praise and record ratings. Conventional wisdom held that the miniseries, with its faithful re-creations of the group’s songs, breakout performances, and keen directing by Chris Robinson had reignited interest in the group. But Thursday’s homecoming show for the New Edition splinter group RBRM — made up of Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, and Michael Bivins, and acronymically named after a line from the group’s fizzy 1984 smash “Cool It Now” — showed that New Edition, and its collective influence, never really went away.
The concert at the Boch Center Wang Theatre wasn’t billed as a New Edition show because vocalists Ralph Tresvant (who uttered the “Cool It Now” line) and Johnny Gill were absent. Tresvant took lead on a lot of New Edition’s material — a challenge for other nominal reunion shows, but not for this one. RBRM split their setlist between tracks from Brown’s fiery, at times genre-defining solo career and offerings from the self-described “hip-hop smoothed out on an R&B tip with a pop appeal to it” trio Bell Biv DeVoe. (A few New Edition tracks, like the throwback to the rotary-phone age “Mr. Telephone Man,” rounded things out, with Bell’s buttery-smooth voice often taking lead.)
That setup allowed New Edition to be seen as a springboard not just for the entire boy band explosion, but for R&B’s progression in the latter part of the 20th century, and for the four members of RBRM to show appreciation for one another. The night began with Brown’s defiant 1988 stomp “My Prerogative,” only its opening lyrical gambit — “They say I’m crazy, I really don’t care” — was sung not by Brown but by DeVoe; Brown returned the favor when he took lead on Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Do Me!,” which showcased his still-robust pipes. The camaraderie between the four took center stage multiple times in between the raucous, synchronized-dancing-accompanied renditions of tracks like Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Dope!”; they gave each other support while proclaiming fealty to the fans in attendance and what Bivins referred to as “the B” — their hometown of Boston.
In the context of 2018, when Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” and Khalid’s “OTW” are paying tribute to the era when New Edition — and Brown, and BBD, and Tresvant and Gill as well — thrived, hearing the catalogs of Brown, BBD, and New Edition arranged into a single whole was a marvel. “Every Little Step,” a sunshine-bright Brown cut from his monster 1988 album “Don’t Be Cruel,” still sparkles, its infatuated lyrics matched by the ferocity of its synth hits; “Poison,” the debut BBD single that warned listeners to “never trust a big butt and a smile,” still has one of the most irresistible choruses in modern pop. It’s been 40 years since New Edition’s earliest days in Roxbury, but as four of its members showed on Thursday night, the potency of their best material hasn’t waned one bit.
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, Thursday
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.