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Music review: 'I Love the '90s' a nostalgic money-grab that goes far too long

Musical artist Vanilla Ice was among performers Friday at Black Bear Casino. vanillaice.com

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Ideally, it's something that comes about as a result of a smell, a taste, a sound. You take in a sensation, and it transports you in an almost supernatural way to another time in your life, however briefly.

When nostalgia is weaponized and used for crass commercial purposes, that's when it turns ugly. When "remember when" becomes a rallying cry for people who are long past their prime, that's when the cringe factor gets cranked to the max.

Friday night at Black Bear Casino, the "I Love the '90s" tour continued its blatantly nostalgic worldwide cash grab, and, hey, good for the artists for being working musicians and doing what they do. But the packaging was so gross, it was hard to endure. And the show went for almost four godforsaken hours.

Yes, four hours. Even Bruce Springsteen would think that excessive. The lineup: Young MC, Tone Loc, Color Me Badd, Coolio, Salt-N-Pepa, and the one and only Vanilla Ice, each of them playing abbreviated sets. In between each act, a DJ played the non-rock hits of the early '90s. It was mostly an intolerable parade of fallen stars and mediocrity, the likes of which people used to have to go to county fairs to gawk at.

The overview: from the get go, it was clear that this wasn't a celebration of music that happened to be from one era. It was a celebration of an era that just so happened to coincide with the peaks of each artist on the bill's careers. It was a salute to a time frame. To youth itself.

The show began with a DJ on stage, spinning tunes. "Do y'all remember this '90s music I'm playin'?" he asked. The early birds whooped in reply. He went on to talk about Reebok pumps and L.A. Gear shoes, among other related topics, as did an MC that appeared frequently throughout the night. The men encouraged the crowd to drink (sorry, sober people: you weren't really wanted, at this event) and repeatedly shouted at the audience to find out if they remembered stuff. It had the effect of making the show seem like a super-expensive program at an old-folks' home. The only thing missing was a round of Bingo.

No one had even played a set yet when the MC pulled a bunch of people up on stage for a trivia game that asked contestants to identify TV theme songs from the '70s and '80s. Because, you know, "I Love the '90s," right? Strangely, too, most people on stage were dressed as if it were about 2003, but let's just get on to the music.

Young MC came on and rapped until he was out of breath (which took only a few minutes) and showed a trailer to an incredibly cheap-looking movie he directed while he rapped about "the nocturnal." This was at about 7:30. He was not good. His movie trailer was full of blood and electrocution scenes, which really helped set the early '90s party mood. To coin a word: not.

Tone Loc was a bit more magnetic, but he still looked like a guy who had come directly from a job on an assembly line to the venue. He arrived after a disembodied voice rattled off his resume and then asked "How many of you remember watching Tone Loc videos on MTV?" The crowd whooped. They remembered. Hooray for functioning memory. Loc covered "Nuthin' But a G Thang" because, why not, it was a song from the time that the thing was about, so whatever.

Color Me Badd came out looking curvy and mostly stunk. They didn't even have the guy that looked like Kenny G with them, and their dance moves were as bad as their boneless New Jack beats. "How many of you remember this song?" their unrecognizable lead singer asked. The crowd hooted. Memories still intact. CMB covered "No Diggity," because, y'know, '90s. At one point a massive bra was thrown on stage, and everyone marveled at it.

Coolio came on after an intro that saw his name superimposed over a low-quality jpeg of a Grammy award and immediately started sweating profusely. He had some actual musicians playing actual instruments with him, so that was nice. Their brief cover of "Purple Rain" was terrible, but it was followed up with a saxophone solo that was truly impressive. Yeah, the best part of the Coolio set was his sax player, and you had to wonder if even Coolio knew that. The weirdest part of the performance was how Coolio censored his own f-bombs, not just in his songs, but in his actual speeches. He would just drop the "uck" part of the word and pretend like it was not really weird, but it totally was.

At this point, the promised party atmosphere was in, to use the parlance of the times, full effect. The brain-melting, pant-leg-shaking sub-bass of the insanely loud (yet clear) sound system continued even between acts, and it almost seemed at one point during a set change that maybe no live musicians even really needed to be there, seeing all the dancing that was going on while no one was on stage.

Salt-N-Pepa, thank goodness, saved the day. They are both still total pros with magnetism to spare, and DJ Spinderella was the queen of the whole evening, her up on her tall perch, lighting the room up with her thousand-watt smile. Spinderella was actually the only person to reference the fact that Nirvana and grunge had existed, when she played a chunk of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" during a solo spotlight. Weirdly, she also went into Guns N' Roses' 1987 classic "Sweet Child of Mine," but let's not get hung up on that. Bottom line: Salt-N-Pepa were funny, sexy, cool, and they performed their many hits well. They were the only ones on the bill who still seemed powerful and present, even though they, too, played to the crowd's nostalgia at times. Only weird thing was when Salt just seemed to disappear during the group's last song.

And then Vanilla Ice came on and once again proved to everyone why Vanilla Ice should not be allowed on a stage. As much as he seems like a decent fella, he is almost completely without musical talent. His main interest seemed to be polling the audience on whether they remembered certain things and asking them to "make some noise" in affirmation. Here are some of the things Mr. Ice wanted to know if his paying customers remembered: the '90s, Blockbuster Video, cassette decks, flip phones, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And, yes, the crowd remembered all of them. At no point did Ice ask a question and was met by silence. That was reassuring.

Ice did about 10 songs, one of which was a wonky version of his smash "Ice Ice Baby" that had the wrong bassline (rights issues with Queen, perhaps?). It was even worse than it was in 1990. Quickly thereafter, Ice's stage was flooded with people from the crowd who all stood around with their cell phones. "Get your selfies out!" Ice demanded, perhaps not realizing that that's not a thing people ever say. Early in the show, he whined about how, back in the day, people didn't have Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat, and he and his homies threw block parties to socialize. At the end of the concert, when more than half the crowd had left (that's what happens when you don't save your hit until the end), Ice stood, draped in the American flag (he had just finished doing the requisite shouting out of the military, sans the National Guard, who he just replaced with "the police"), asking whoever was left to check out his Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. It was pitiful.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, sometimes literally. But mostly it's useless and silly. Songs are timeless, or at least they should be. No one goes to the symphony and has to endure the conductor screaming at them about the year 1735 — they just play Bach, and it's great, because good music transcends time and death. At the "I Love the '90s" tour, they cynically wrapped up the music in the fashions of the time, sapping it all of meaning outside the frame of nostalgia, making their art as disposable and disposed of as a pair of L.A. Gear shoes. Remember those?

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

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