DeVoe says that even when out of the band, Brown was rarely far away. Reminiscing about the Heart Break tour of 1988-89, with Brown opening for New Edition (a very fine tour), DeVoe said, "Bobby still had a camaraderie with us, almost as if we were setting the foundation for a reunion then." No matter what else is going on in terms of solo work, DeVoe said, "New Edition is always in the back of all of our minds."
Do pictures of the earliest New Edition, circa 1983, bring up memories? DeVoe laughed in agreement before saying, "It all seems such a blur now. That's what 30-some years in the game does. Still, you know, everything that [producer/writer] Maurice Starr did, from the songs to our videos, captured the real essence of who we were, fresh off the streets of Boston. Seriously - we got our wardrobe from our closets. There was nothing fabricated."
The bubblegum soul of the group's first recordings started to feel stale by the third album, All for Love, in 1985. The outfit, in a prescient move, shrank from the tween scene. After Brown departed to "go to the left" and live out his solo aspirations, New Edition started looking for a more mature vibe.
"We lost our bubblegum sound when we got Johnny in the band and having Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as our producers," said DeVoe, who calls himself "the middle man" when it comes to New Edition's sound and design. "But we were working on that before they came into the picture, from our choreography to our musical vibe. And that was based on the essence of who we were as men at that point."
The grown-and-sexy sound of second-generation New Edition, combined with the pop-hop of Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe, gave the six-man reunion a tough but tender tone that has been part of their reunited sound, whether on 1996's Home Again or 2004's One Love. "There's nothing like the six of us together, whether it's our history, solo stuff, or when we get together to come up with something new."
While the last New Edition tour was a "raw" affair in DeVoe's estimate (an odd choice of words, considering the sextet's plush harmonies), he said this summer's jaunt has "all the bells, whistles, and big lighting." And although performing old hits is cool, DeVoe said, it's doubly important for a reconnected New Edition to get into the studio to compete in the current marketplace.
DeVoe won't reveal song titles for an album now scheduled for release before year's end. But he does say "there are songs that sound geared to individuals like Johnny or Bobby, along with moments that organically just come across as New Edition. We're exploring all those sides, not only in the studio, but on the tour bus and our hotel rooms. Six men working on our joints - ballads or otherwise - can't be bad."
New Edition, with Joe and DJ Cash Money, play at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 5201 Parkside Ave. Tickets: $30-$112.50. Information: 215-546-7900, www.manncenter.org.