Tevin Campbell woos his listener with an energetic and infectious charm, and with every note, high and low.
If you are between 35 and 45 years old and Tevin Campbell was on your Walkman, you were most likely at GrandWest’s Grand Arena last Friday patiently sitting through three opening acts waiting to indulge in the nostalgia of your youth. I was 16 years old again, buzzing with anticipation as flashes of my young loves and break-ups whizzed by to the new jack swing of the adolescent tenor that dominated the 90’s R’n’B charts. The air was filled with that teen excitement you have when a boy you like is about to walk into the room.
When Campbell finally entered the stage, with Cape Town’s finest cover band, Top Dog SA, to back him, the arena roared with relief that he was actually there, in front of us, smoothly crooning his way into his greatest hits and ballads.
I was expecting an older, more jaded performer but Tevin Campbell woos his listener with an energetic and infectious charm, and with every note, high and low. Standout tracks included all the singles from his 1993 sophomore album including the title track ‘I’m Ready’ and ‘Always In My Heart’. When he fell during the first part of ‘Can We Talk’, nothing could stop him or us from pretending that it didn’t happen – because the hook was coming up! He laughed through the chorus, while maintaining those beloved notes and we applauded his clumsy trip with gleeful adoration.
Campbell stripped down my all-time favourite slow jam from his 1991 debut album, TEVIN and aged it with grace. ‘Tell Me What You Want Me To Do’ simply silenced the audience. The control and range, and the depth and bare soul with which he delivered it was breathtakingly beautiful. This was a song written for him when he was just 15 years old and clearly a star in the making, but Campbell demonstrated that he was not merely a teenage novelty. Times may have changed, but he still takes his art seriously and he can still send every note exactly where it ought to go.
With a tribute to Prince on ‘Shhh (Break It Down)’, written for him by the late funk machine, he continued to deliver the maturity that was almost unnerving when he was a boy, but fits him so well as the man he is now. Throw in a couple of slick hip moves and footwork and it’s as though Michael Jackson and Prince made a baby and named him Tevin.
Having touched on some new material and songs from his least successful album Back To The World, he dug back into I’m Ready and closed with ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. When we encored him back, he introduced the first song he ever released with a personal and sentimental backstory of hope. I felt a tear slip in awe of the 13 year old boy, full of potential, who recorded ‘Tomorrow’ in 1990 and became the man and performer he always wanted to be.
Campbell fondly chastised us when we didn’t know words to songs, he bowed right down onto the floor for the incredible Top Dog SA and complained that they were upstaging him, he made fun of himself when he forgot a lyric or fell on stage for the very first time in his career, and when he said he was humbled by the opportunity to share his music with us, we believed him. Campbell’s vulnerability connects with the audience, his playfulness makes him feel like a friend and his unique vocal style and talent makes you go home and listen to all of his music all over again. I was that girl again, with his posters on my wall, turning to him when I had a crush, and leaning on him when I was heartbroken. It felt good to be 16 years old once more.
A very special mention to Top Dog SA, most notably the outstanding guitarist Mark Williams and saxophonist and band leader Donveno Prins, not only for upholding the authenticity of Campbell’s music but for their immense talent that brought a uniquely Capetonian vibe to the set. The Black Ties (Keeno-Lee Hector, Chad Saaiman and Lloyd Jansen) brought the house down with funk and soul covers as did former Idols SA contestant, Lloyd Cele, especially on the original, beautiful Zulu serenade, ‘Thando’. Tevin Campbell found himself in great company.
Tevin Campbell performed at Carnival City in Johannesburg on 23 & 24 July 2016, and at Grand West Casino in Cape Town on 22 July 2016.