Outside, tickets for TLC’s first-ever UK show are changing hands for £100 a pop. In watering holes near the venue, there are women dressed to the nines wearing one stripe of eye black under their eyes. Most often seen on American football players, the glare-reducing smear on the cheekbone was glamorised by the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the rapping third of TLC who died in a car crash in 2002.
No one is wearing a condom on their glasses, another one of Left-Eye’s visual signatures, promoting safe sex and Aids awareness, but the devotion is palpable. As we wait, their DJ mischievously plays Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, a song that owes a debt to TLC’s peerless hit No Scrubs. The crowd – male, female, black, white, those who remember TLC’s reign in the late 90s first hand, and those who might have been conceived to their records – ripple expectantly. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas finally arrive wearing eye-popping mustard and gold. They are flanked by shiny dancers, a three-piece horn section and a full band, ending what is, unbelievably, a 25-year wait.
Their set may be a little stop-start, with multiple entrances and the shocking underuse of a gospel choir. But it is deeply satisfying, not least because TLC’s generous back catalogue, full of sass and wise advice, comes sprinkled with a handful of new songs that are far from terrible.
Den mother T-Boz plays the R&B stateswoman, a commanding presence with a sultry husk. Chilli’s vocals are airy and weightless; her abdominals continue to be things of wonder. She pronounces Waterfalls with a dropped “t” when the crowd yell out their request and returns after the end to shake a few more fingers in the front rows. Left Eye’s verses are left in, with images of the late rapper playing out across the screens.
The small venue engenders intimacy. “Why’d you write this song?” Chilli asks T-Boz at the start of their anthem Unpretty, the body image song that preceded both Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful. “Someone cheated on me,” confides T-Boz.
Way Back is the new single, which lands smoothly. Technically a song about a relationship, the lyric knowingly plays out as a commentary on band and fans. “It’s been a long time coming,” sigh T-Boz and Chilli smoothly, reflecting on “all that shit we went through”.
It really does strain belief that one of the world’s most successful girl groups – 65m records sold worldwide is the standard statistic – have never played in London before. But if you have a long memory, or caught CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, a made-for-TV biopic from 2013 that kickstarted this latter-day burst of TLC activity, you’ll have an inkling of the mismanagement, exploitative contracts, health problems, chemical contretemps and internal strife that bedevilled them. Left Eye was in rehab when their 1994 album CrazySexyCool was recorded. That album is diamond certified, but the band declared bankruptcy after its release. Left Eye burned down her boyfriend’s house. T-Boz, meanwhile, battled sickle-cell anaemia. The sound advice in their R&B has been hard won, to say the least.
When TLC announced they wanted to make a new album, billed as their last, in 2015, they did it with a modern twist – on Kickstarter. Katy Perry was an early pledger, with $5,000. That album, simply titled TLC, is finally coming next month, and another breezy new song, Joy Ride, once again takes up the theme of TLC’s hairpin-bend journey.
Clearly, though, there is business of long-standing to attend to: hits never before aired live in the UK. When it comes at the end, the mighty Waterfalls – Left Eye’s favourite, apparently – is every bit as mascara-smearingly special as its moist theme suggests. Puzzlingly, TLC bring out the gospel choir, who don’t actually do much singing.
First up, though, is the deathlessly brilliant No Scrubs, with its series of kiss-offs to guys who fail to make the grade. When the line “just sits on his broke ass” goes by, Chilli whacks her rump, laughing. Rather than go nuts, the audience choose to put their phones up instead. I idly wonder whether artists ought to routinely perform their biggest hits twice – once for Instagram and once for real.
Source: The Observer
TLC review – a forcefield of midlife R&B wisdom and physical energy
4 / 5 stars
Emotions run high at T-Boz and Chilli’s first-ever UK and European gig as a nostalgia-tinted CrazySexyCool playlist cues loving reverence
Forty five minutes after the DJ first announced that TLC’s arrival was imminent and 10 minutes after their backing band took their positions, here at last are TLC. Never mind that the DJ filled in that 45 minutes with harried exhortations, quelling the fans’ impatience by playing Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, which sounds so similar to TLC’s No Scrubs that its composers have been added to Shape of You’s songwriting credits. When Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas appear, resplendent in gold, all is forgiven.
This one-off UK show by one of the biggest R&B girl groups of all time is more than just a pit-stop plugging their first record in 15 years (though Chilli does just that, commanding: “Buy the album”). Astonishingly, it’s the first European gig of their 25-year career, and emotions are running high – albeit in the audience rather than on stage. The place is packed with women whose teen years were informed by TLC’s relatability, where indomitable confidence coexisted with insecurity; Unpretty, for instance, examined the obsession with bodily perfection years before Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts. Thus, tonight is more worshipful excursion than gig.
Nostalgia will be further indulged this summer, when TLC headline a 1990s package tour, but the duo resist the retro pigeonhole. While tonight skews toward hits from their CrazySexyCool era, with recorded vocals from Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who died in 2002, T-Boz and Chilli approach their catalogue with the assumption that its messages are still relevant. Yes, the language in Silly Ho is dated, and the set has the quirks common to big American R&B shows, including interludes where the singers inexplicably disappear for five minutes at a time. Yet TLC in midlife are a forcefield, packing wisdom and physical energy. If there’s baggage from the personal problems that dogged them in the 90s, it’s been tucked away. Tonight, they’re CrazySexyCool without the crazy.
Though singing and dancing duties are shared, T-Boz does more of the heavy lifting in the vocal department and Chilli in the dancing. There’s a pleasing symmetry to this: on Red Light Special, T-Boz takes an authoritative vocal role, while Chilli toys with a male fan who’s been pulled from the crowd, a set piece that has the women working in slinky sync (fan: “You’re the only other person my girlfriend would let me sleep with”). The most satisfying moments, though, are when both come together in simple vocal unison. It happens most notably on the recent single Way Back, a homage to the 90s sound they helped to sculpt, and also on the songs everyone has come to hear, No Scrubs and Waterfalls. During the latter, the gospel choir who appear, and quickly disappear, are superfluous – the song highlights TLC’s core quality of resilience – and T-Boz and Chilli convey it perfectly on their own. Video footage of an incredibly young-looking Left Eye plays behind them, reminding us that although the remaining members are no longer kids, there’s much to be said for maturity.
Source: The Guardian