Rain? No problem. So you bring an umbrella, or you get wet. This is Buffalo. We’ve seen worse.
On Thursday, as the Buffalo Place Canalside series welcomed ’90s R&B star Teddy Riley and his new incarnation of the harmony-heavy Blackstreet to town, the weather was ominous and threatening rain whenever it wasn’t actually raining.
Still, a large crowd gathered for a celebration of ’90s R&B and urban music. The event turned out to be a dance party, and the people who came to party did so whether they happened to be holding an umbrella or otherwise.
Riley, whose name drew the crowd and is widely held to be the architect of New Jack Swing, has had a major impact on the fusion of Hip-Hop and R&B that we now accept as commonplace.
It certainly wasn’t when Riley first started producing music that brought the harmony-heavy stylings of Motown groups and classic R&B into the pop market of the late 80s, in the process fusing them with a stylized groove that implied a swing feel. The idiom became known as New Jack Swing, and with the formation of Blackstreet, Riley became the form’s king.
Caucasian acts like *NSYNC took several pages from the Riley handbook and brought the music to the mainstream, but Riley remained the man behind the curtain throughout the ’90s, emerging from time to time as producer and writer behind a mega-hit and making it plain to anyone who was paying attention that the idiom was largely his own.
Which explains why the faithful braved the lousy weather to watch the man strut his stuff.
Flanked by a new band and three new singers – J-Styles, Lenny Harold and Tony Tyler – Riley partied like it was 1993. Dressed in matching white outfits with black trim, the new Blackstreet took to the stage with kerchiefs pulled up over their faces, pulling them down to reveal themselves one by one as a voice-over introduced them. Riley may have been the only original member on stage, but the crowd didn’t seem to care. Their four-part vocal arrangements bathed in auto-tune, the men performed an intro bit – essentially harmonizing on the obvious fact that “Blackstreet’s in the house” – before digging into a tune from their second album, the groove-heavy, harmony-saturated “Don’t Leave Me.”
Canalside came alive, as fans danced in unison and raised their voices as one during the chorus bits. The sound quality was impeccable, with a band comprising three keyboardists, a DJ and a drummer who was never introduced but came close to stealing the show with his funky and on-point playing lending muscle to the vocal troop.
When Riley’s former cohort in the original Blackstreet, Dave Hollister, emerged to take a stroll through the hit “Before I Let You Go,” the energy level increased dramatically, and from there on out, the new version of Blackstreet could do no wrong.
Both J-Styles and Harold handled lead vocals with panache and power, even if they were most likely in diapers when Riley was dreaming up New Jack Swing back in the day. And the power of the backing band can’t be denied – these guys were on it, even if it would’ve been nice to have an actual bass player in the house, instead relegating the bass to a synth, and thus denying the fantastic drummer the opportunity to meld with a genuine 4-string player.
A medley of hit songs Riley helped to create – Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her,” bits of tunes Riley produced and/or wrote for Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson – went over very well, even if it did feel a bit Las Vegas Revue-like.
Riley’s influence on the marriage of soul, classic R&B, Motown, pop and Hip-Hop cannot be overestimated. His show served as both nostalgia act for the 40-somethings who remember Blackstreet and Guy, and dance party for the many in attendance who, by the look of it, probably weren’t born yet when Riley first hit it big.
A pair of fantastic Buffalo DJs kept the crowd moving from 5 p.m. until Riley and Blackstreet took the stage at 8:30. DJ Heat manned the turntables first, turning in a set of classic Hip-Hop that earned him an inspired ovation at its conclusion.
DJ C-Perfect followed, taking things from the early ’90s crossover appeal of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” through well-mixed forays into the 80s (The Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop ‘till You Get Enough”) and a stop in the fertile soil of ’70s R&B/disco/funk, via Earth Wind & Fire and KC and the Sunshine Band. Both sets boasted an impeccable flow.
Riley, Blackstreet and a pair of Buffalo DJs turned a dark and dismal night on the Buffalo Waterfront into a jubilant dance party on Thursday, and for that, they deserve kudos.