En Vogue Reunite at CMJ, Still Holdin’ On, Still Freein’ Minds
Music industry fests like CMJ regularly mix a few reunions into their bacchanal of baby bands, but usually it’s alt-rock icons like Dinosaur Jr., which was why the surprisingly unheralded return of ’90s R&B legends En Vogue was such a shocker. Could this be the real En Vogue? The four Oakland ladies who ran the pop charts with a series of sassy smashes and then simply disappeared? Why yes, it could. And damn, can they still sing.
But if the press generally ignored En Vogue’s return, their fans did not, selling out midtown mainstay B.B. King’s to witness what felt like a trial run for a full-on tour. This was an early show, over and done by 9PM on Friday night (Oct. 21) in New York City, which, incidentally, was when the CMJ sked said it would start — and there wasn’t even a live band.
Dawn Robinson, Cindy Herron, Maxine Jones and Terry Ellis stood in a line with an unseen backing-track operator pressing play behind them, but somehow that didn’t detract from the show. After all, nobody was there to see a horn player; they wanted to hear these girls’ own pipes.
And their voices haven’t aged a bit — in fact, they haven’t aged much, either, all four looking incredibly fit and fine more than two decades past their debut. They also seemed adorably taken aback by the adulation after so much time away, boasting some of the most genuine grins ever seen onstage.
Robinson may have seemed like the breakout star at the time, and she still claimed the most charisma on the stage, but En Vogue was always a group first and foremost, and they all took equal turns singing lead and sharing backing harmonies on hits like ‘My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).’
Putting their own back catalog into context, they ran through a lengthy set of older-school R&B hits that they said inspired their own work, from ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ to ‘Proud Mary’ to the Curtis Mayfield-penned ‘Something He Can Feel,’ which Aretha Franklin made famous in the ’70s and En Vogue brought back to the charts in 1992.
From there. they ran the boards with their own hits. They sounded equally timeless, unlike some ’90s R&B songs, which, while great, are locked into their New Jack Swing era. En Vogue’s songs could have come out decades ago — or right now — and sounded equally on point.
With choreographed sass, they cocked their hips, flipped their wrists and turned their lungs up to eleven, setting the crowd off with a rocking take on ‘Free Your Mind,’ a rap-free rendition of ‘Whatta Man’ (oh, if only Salt-N-Pepa had made an unannounced cameo!) and a dark, sultry, show-stopping rendition of ‘Don’t Let Go (Love),’ from the ‘Set it Off’ soundtrack.
And then, with a simple throwback, “Y’all know what time it is,” the ladies broke out their greatest hit, ‘Hold On,’ absolutely killing the a cappella intro and settling into the classic track’s chunky groove as the crowd joined in on their powerhouse harmonies.
And then, after the audience had filed out of the club, the four members of En Vogue filed into a taxicab. Next time, hopefully, they’ll have a tour bus waiting outside.