Article By Caroline Sullivan (The Guardian)
Video-making has changed! All the aerial shots for our new single were done with a big white drone,” En Vogue’s Cindy Herron marvels. The last time her group released an album, a “drone” was a male bee and En Vogue were thoroughly out of vogue. That was 2004 – a low point for the R&B trio, who had been buffeted by lineup changes and lawsuits over ownership of their name. Unsurprisingly that album, Soul Flower, fizzled; 14 years later, the terrain is much more welcoming. The 90s revival has encouraged the rediscovery of voluptuous female soul voices, and En Vogue – prime influence for a cavalcade of R&B girl groups, including Destiny’s Child and TLC – have judged the time to be right for another go.
There’s a new album, Electric Café, a freshly enlightened approach to songwriting and a crisp live set to show it all off. Herron and bandmates Terry Ellis and Rhona Bennett perform on a bare stage, accompanied only by a backing track, which initially seems an unfittingly low-budget way to go about things, but turns out to be a smart move. Without the distraction of dancers and costume changes – they arrive onstage in frothy black dresses and leave 75 minutes later in the same clothes – the women’s voices are the focal point. Forget for a moment their role in developing the new jill swing sound that colonised the 90s charts and just listen to the vocal interplay: these three are exceptional harmonists. There has been no dilution of their powers over the decades (new girl Bennett has been aboard since 2003, but founding members Herron and Ellis go back to 1990). If anything, years of working smallish venues like this has distilled their essence. As the voices entwine and fall away, it’s like listening to a waterfall.
Traditional entertainers at heart, the still-funky divas avoid controversy, and haven’t featured much in conversations around the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements. And with hindsight tonight’s encore, the 1992 single Free Your Mind, now seems extraordinarily simplistic: “Be colour-blind, don’t be so shallow,” it exhorts, as if not noticing race will sort it. As a piece of music, though, it’s still thrillingly potent. Ditto the sublime legacy hits that fill most of the setlist: My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It), Don’t Let Go, Hold On and Whatta Man. That last featured rappers Salt-N-Pepa on the original version, but, as Herron laconically notes: “Salt-N-Pepa ain’t here tonight.” Instead, she and the others make a decent show of rapping themselves.
Yet they’re not unaware of current thinking. I’m Good, one of several Electric Café songs played tonight, addresses the self-esteem crisis that afflicts many millennials; its thundering bassline jolts the audience into dancing. (It should be noted that the crowd is comprised not just of people who grew up bawling along to their songs, but also a faction of twentysomethings, perhaps curious to see what these 1990s were all about.) The cascading throwback Blue Skies finds its power in its self-reliance message; elsewhere, the single Rocket is a lush, straight-up sex jam helmed by Bennett’s expressive lead vocal (with no designated lead singer, the trio take turns fronting songs).
When they leave the stage and the lights go up, revealing bare floorboards and flight cases, it feels as if the magic has left the building.