“They didn’t underestimate us,” Donnie Wahlberg told the TD Garden audience almost exactly halfway through Friday’s concert, the first of two nearly sold-out shows. “They underestimated all of you.” It was a canny admission, simultaneously self-aware and pandering. It suggests that he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the critical perception of New Kids on the Block as purveyors of shallow, disposable thrills, only that it failed to account for the ardor of their fans. And the very fact that that ardor remains so strong to this day is by itself enough to challenge that critical perception. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it’s love that makes them Real.
That sort of thing could provide enough fuel to coast from arena to arena, banging out minor variations on the same nostalgia show. And on the surface, their performance offered just that, coupling the Dorchester boy band with teen-pop contemporaries and hip-hop legacy acts. But one somewhat bonkers format decision — no openers, no intermissions, supporting acts popping up periodically (and often without introduction) — injected a massive jolt of electricity into the concert. After all, you never know when Tiffany is suddenly going to rise out of the floor singing “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
Thus the New Kids became generous hosts, and the enthusiasm and focus that they brought to the table for their hometown crowd rippled across everyone else’s spotlights. Naughty by Nature seemed most out of place on the bill, but they were bumping, breathless, and great on “O.P.P.” and “Hip Hop Hooray” nonetheless. By contrast, Salt-N-Pepa exuded a more laid-back confidence and entered as queens, stealing the New Kids’ “Step by Step” mid-song and transforming it authoritatively into “Push It.”
Teendom was baked into the other performers’ entire m.o. Debbie Gibson’s singing, as thin and girlish as during her heyday, sounded strained coming from an adult, but her sheer exuberance buoyed her through bouncy snippets of “Only in My Dreams” and “Out of the Blue” and a melodramatic, over-the-top duet of “Lost in Your Eyes” with a gleefully overemoting Joey McIntyre. Tiffany, on the other hand, showed off a fantastic voice that has matured since her youth into the cracked toughness of country, nailing the heartbreak and regret of “Could’ve Been” that she could only dream of as a teen.
The headliners themselves were stalwart custodians of their fans’ own teen dreams. With no instruments visible (but all cranked to 11) and harmonies that were anonymously competent at best, they concentrated on having a blast and pulled everyone along with them. “The Way” was whirring, clubby disco, and “Remix (I Like The)” was urgent and sharp, with Wahlberg’s no-nonsense gruffness and McIntyre’s sweet-voiced tenor pushed to the brink. They were lascivious to an extent they could never have pulled off as kids on “Dirty Dancing” and tinkly and creamy on “Valentine Girl” and “Please Don’t Go Girl,” where they were in full pander with McIntyre weepy and prostrate. It was schtick, and it wasn’t schtick. And that’s why you underestimate New Kids fans, and the New Kids, at your peril.
New Kids On The Block
With Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Naughty by Nature and Salt-N-Pepa
At TD Garden, Friday (repeats Saturday)
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc