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New Kids on the Block does the implausible

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It was a scene very few people would have expected to see in the Bay Area this week:

An arena full of thousands of fans and they were all cheering on five men wearing Boston Celtics jerseys.

Yes, even fans wearing Golden State Warriors gear were busy covering these guys in green with love.

Had Dubs fans grown finicky as their team was set to face the Celtics in the NBA Finals?

No, those particular fans weren’t thinking about hoops. They were thinking about hits — and the Boston-proud New Kids on the Block were delivering plenty of them Wednesday night (June 1) at the SAP Center in San Jose.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t mention a few upcoming basketball games,” New Kid Donnie Wahlberg told the crowd.

Still, those fans weren’t about to let the band’s questionable taste in sports teams and jerseys keep them from enjoying what amounted to a wonderfully nostalgic soundtrack of 80s and 90s hits.

And it wasn’t just this multimillion-selling boy band that provided the hits. They also came from three special guest bands – legendary hip-hop troupe Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue and Rick Astley – as part of NKOTB’s highly entertaining Mixtape Tour.

Like the previous Mixtape trek in 2019 – which also included Salt-N-Pepa as well as Naughty By Nature, Tiffany and the great Debbie Gibson – this tour is not organized in the traditional sense of opening acts setting the stage for the big headliner.

Instead, it’s just a big, nearly three-hour set where everyone takes turns playing — kind of like an old-school variety show.

The format is a win-win for everyone involved. Fans don’t have to endure the long pauses that usually accompany multiple acts. And the opening acts play out in front of full arenas, as opposed to large patches of empty seats as NKOTB fans finish their Chipotle burritos in the parking lot.

The New Kids were actually the first to hit the stage, appearing just after 8 p.m. and kicking off the gigantic set with “Block Party.”

The crowd went wild at the mere sight of these jukebox heroes, with some of the longtime fans surely remembering the days when they carried New Kids lunch boxes and had the posters plastered on their walls. (In fact, judging by the reaction, perhaps many of those fans are still carrying around the New Kids lunchboxes and have the posters plastered all over their walls.)

From there, the band continued through “My Favorite Girl”, “Dirty Dancing” and four more numbers before fading offstage. It worked really well for me, because I’m usually ready for something else – like Gojira or Ornette Coleman – after listening to half a dozen NKOTBs. Yet, instead of French heavy metal or avant-garde jazz, we heard En Vogue, which ended up performing just as well.

The multi-platinum selling vocal trio from Oakland – currently made up of Terry Ellis, Cindy Herron and Rhona Bennett – performed two of their most amazing hits, ‘Never Gonna Get It’ and ‘Free Your Mind’, before to hand over to Rick Astley.

The Englishman looked amazing, delivering the best vocal work of the night as he delighted fans with ‘Together Forever’ and ‘It Would Take a Strong Strong Man’.

Then NKOTB were back on stage, working the crowd with a medley of tracks, before handing over to the legendary Salt-N-Pepa – who used the showcase to once again illustrate why they should have been listed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a long time ago.

The highlight of this Salt-N-Pepa mini set came when the hip-hop duo were joined by En Vogue to relive the 1993 triumph “Whatta Man.”

The bands performed on two stages – a large one with a catwalk and a smaller one set up across the arena floor. This allowed the acts to come and go without interruption in the action, since as soon as the lights went out on one stage, they went up on the other.

The New Kids were certainly in top form tonight – though in 2022 that game basically translates to “The Donny Wahlberg Show.” Yeah, it’s been that way for years now, but I can’t remember the stage tilting that way in his direction before.

The singer, who is also a TV and movie star, is a force of nature who dominates the spotlight with his personality, humor, crowd interactions, dance moves and singing. It’s a good thing he brings so much to the party, because there would be a void to fill if he didn’t. Still, I can’t help but wonder what the other members might contribute if Wahlberg actually gave them so much room to do so.