For those eagerly awaiting the return of TLC, a bit of advice: don't blink. On Saturday night, Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas, sans the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, descended upon Santa Ana's Beach Goth Festival, choosing the eclectic Growlers-curated extravaganza as a landing spot for their homecoming (though why this event, and why now remains unclear).
The impetus to reunite is obvious: Reunions are lucrative, and consider their 1999 six-time-platinum Fan Mail came out right around the time a good chunk of Beach Goth's teen fanbase was born, there are few candidates more appealing candidate for our nostalgia obsessed times than the Atlanta-based group. Their brand of pop-driven R&B is in the DNA of pop's subsequent generations, from Drake to D.R.A.M. to The Dirty Projector's to Beach Goth's own Melanie Martinez. And that aspect of their legacy in particular shined through during a Beach Goth performance that was far tighter and engaging than it had any reason to be. People aren't supposed to stop performing for 15 years and pick it up again without a glitch, but that's precisely what happened.
They played "Creep" and "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" early in the set, a welcome reminder of the group's breadth and depth of knockout songwriting that extends well beyond the ubiquitous, meme-ified pop smashes "No Scrubs" and "Waterfalls." Backup dancers added fundamental showmanship to punch up tracks the younger crowd might be less familiar with, but the set was ultimately a declaration that TLC made great pop and hip-hop that still holds up: "Red Light Special," "Unpretty," "Baby-Baby-Baby," "Diggin On You." Some groups are best off leaving the past untouched, cementing a legacy and disappearing into the shadow of former glory. The revitalization of TLC feels timely and, if not necessary, a delightful ode to the days when bands could sell millions of records off the strength of expertly-crafted songs.
This return to relevancy has been a long time coming for the group. After the embattled rise—feuding and financial problems plagued the group from almost their inception—to third album FanMail, Left Eye was tragically killed in a car crash while shooting a documentary in Honduras. Following 2002's posthumously-released fourth album 3D, circumstances for an indefinite hiatus crystallized immediately, with not much happening between T-Boz and Chilli until the plans for an initial reunion were hatched in 2013. The duo played one-off events and award shows. They were working on a record, then they weren't. In 2015, though, the band took to Kickstarter to raise money for a bonafide, brand new TLC album, due out next year, and they raised enough money in 48 hours. This band clearly was—and still is—important.
It's hard to pin down the average TLC fan today, though—especially at a festival like Beach Goth, whose lineup reads like the entirety of iTunes circa 2005-2015 put on shuffle. A healthy portion of the festival's attendees weren't even born when the group emerged in the early 90s. There were a lot of "No Scrubs" fans, this much is certain. My own introduction to the group was via 2010's The Other Guys, in which a not-yet-Birdman Michael Keaton inadvertently references the group over and over, much to the confusion of Will Ferrell and Marky Mark Wahlberg. I hadn't thought of them again until Beach Goth, when I began to puzzle over what, exactly they were doing at a rock-curated festival in Southern California. The answer doesn't particularly matter, because they showed up and blew the proverbial roof off the open-air amphitheater, running through hits while equipped with an insane dance crew doing back flips seemingly without an understanding of how gravity should work or that doing back flip after back flip should be fucking exhausting.
Led onstage by a DJ who looked like Mario Balotelli entering the Shabazz Palace, T-Boz and Chilli ran wild in denim overalls in high-fashion states of disrepair. The miracle here isn't that TLC descended upon an unknowing audience of goth kids, but that they didn't rip their pants while blasting through their highly choreographed dance moves. The 40 minute set featured two intermissions, the second featuring a dance battle between the group's backup dancers, accompanied by "I'm All the Way Up" and that Desiigner song that isn't "Panda."
The DJ, who assured the audience he was "the world's most exciting DJ," ended the breakdance expo with a story about an Uber ride and a girl he saw from his window who wouldn't give him the time of day. Moments later, Chilli remerged to chastise her DJ for assuming the girl needed to give him attention. Tension grew as the audience realized what was about to happen, and just about lost their damn minds. From on high came an all-time great pop song, accompanied by about a million iPhones trying to Snapchat the opening notes of "No Scrubs." To be the cynic perched behind a festival recap is easy. Admitting that I caved and got a cool ass snippet of the performance is a bit harder.
For their part, the duo seemed overtaken by the joyous crowd reaction. They periodically set their mics down mid-verse or chorus to simply give their fans a smile and wave. One thing the duo will have to improve—if they continue to perform—is the layer of artifice that drifted around their entire set. The backup dancers and the choreographed moves are one thing, but the signs pointing towards lip-syncing were at times too obvious to ignore. The use of backing tracks to help ease the burden of two performers working their asses off is always understood, but to have the whole track bogged down by a vocal performance doesn't make sense. That's what
CDs are for. Maybe Chilli and T-Boz just can't sing as well as they used to. Maybe they're just not in performing shape quite yet. In either case, the reunion should lose its artistic merit. The set was masked in gloss and sheen yet a few blemishes remained. Luckily, the songs are enough fun to hear on huge speakers that these moments of unease are forgiveable
Still, questions remain: Aside from a few dates next month in Australia and New Zealand, why the one off show? And why here? Do diehard TLC fans still exist? What are they going to do with the specter hanging over everyone's head—Left Eye's irreplaceable rapping voice? The answer to the last question proved simple. The duo let her verses run uninterrupted, a touching tribute both heartbreaking and beautiful.
Regarding the prototypical TLC fan, there wasn't a moment more illustrative of the split among Beach Goth's attendees than when I found myself in between two people, one yelling at the dude in front of her for not dancing enough during "Creep"—"Do you even care?," was her phrasing—and the other lamenting to his friend, "I only care about those two songs." The really wonderful thing about a 40-minute TLC set, though, is that even if you're just around for "No Scrubs" or "Waterfalls," the stuff sandwiched in between is near peerless R&B/pop. It's lasting, and it's perhaps more relevant now than ever, as we're able to excavate and re-shape our history and the music we care about and champion. If only Left Eye was here to see how far they've come.
As Chilli and T-Boz finished "No Scrubs" they paused for a brief tribute to their fallen member before busting into her favorite song, "Waterfalls." They ran her verse all the way through and the song slowly faded out. Before the duo left the stage, Chilli asked the crowd if they would catch her if she jumped for a crowd surf. As the fervent audience awaited her with open arms, she leaped from the stage with an eagerness that seemed to have been building for 15 years.
Lead photo by Frank Mojica.
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