Come on, admit it. If you are a female of a certain age you wanted to be a member of En Vogue just like I did when I was little.
They are the girl group ideal; one of the best that ever recorded. A quartet of talented, gorgeous women whose looks and voices complemented each other so well as they sang in close, often quite complex, harmonies.
Maybe EV helped to kick start my lifelong fascination with airtight harmony. I recall when I first heard debut single ‘Hold On’ circa 1989, courtesy of Tim Westwood’s Saturday evening show on Capital FM. The track was avant garde yet sort of vintage. This classic/modern fusion was to become trademark En Vogue. ‘Hold On’ rocked my world and that of many others. The playground soon teemed with dodgy renditions.
Despite being ‘manufactured’ after an open audition held in the late ’80s by production team Foster & McElroy, you would think En Vogue had sung together all their lives. They sounded like four variations of the same voice; something usually only bands comprised of childhood friends could manage.
Amongst the many harmony groups of the 1990s they stood out as the premiere female outfit; the men had Boyz II Men leading the pack, the women had En Vogue. Plus there was none of this lead-singer-with-glorified-backing-vocalists rubbish that was the downfall of other bands (I’m looking at you Miss Ross, Gamble, Knowles etc). Solo spots were an egalitarian affair with En Vogue. They also mastered the (not smutty but) sexy-sophisticated image like no other girl group then or since.
Southern belle Terry Ellis and Cindy Herron-Braggs were my favourites. I thought they were the prettiest and had the best voices. Not being her biggest fan, I wasn’t that bothered to see Dawn Robinson leave in 1997 except I knew one less voice might have an impact on the kind of crazy harmonisation to which we’d become accustomed.
Truth be told it was never quite the same with just the trio. They had some good tunes such as the Babyface-produced ‘Whatever’ and the epic ‘Too Gone, Too Long’ but the En Vogue we’d come to love was a quartet and nothing else would truly suffice. After further personnel changes we had to wait for a guest appearance on Stevie Wonder’s excellent 2005 comeback tune ‘What The Fuss?’ to see the original En Vogue line-up singing together again, as glamorous as ever.
The last time Terry, Cindy, Maxine and Dawn sang in the UK it was 1992. I would’ve been about 11; it was the same year I started secondary school. That Christmas for their annual revue (as was the tradition), the sixth formers paid homage to the Funky Divas by recreating the ‘Free Your Mind’ video. We were suitably enthralled.
Last Thursday night, the best part of 20 years later, I finally got to see the real thing at the IndigO2, London.
Prior to the ladies grand entrance the DJ charged the atmosphere with some choice old school Soul/R&B cuts from the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s. Then 18 years in the making, following a massive build-up, EV breezed onto the stage singing the first few bars of ‘Love Don’t Love You’ acappella launching a medley of some of their popular tunes including ‘Riddle’, ‘Lies’ and ‘My Lovin’’, at which point the Indigo went positively apoplectic. “Oooooh, pop!” we chanted along. When the ladies reached the oft-imitated, “And now it’s time for a breakdown…” interlude you could just about hear their harmonies over the crowd’s rabid singing; but it was all good.
EV still look fabulous… some of them have filled out a little around the midriff area; Maxine looked especially buxom. There were some crow’s feet here and there but damn it – how many 40-something women are this hot? Cindy in particular has aged very well. She looked absolutely stunning in her black and silver mini-dress and fishnet tights, showing off ridiculously toned arms, legs… everything basically; it’s hard to believe she’s the oldest… or that she’s a mother of four! And she sounded amazing too; so flawless in fact I initially suspected it was playback.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how well Dawn’s voice had held up. I didn’t previously reckon with her but after Thursday’s performance I wondered if I’d underestimated Ms Robinson all these years. Terry – my number one EV vocalist – is ever the powerhouse but a faulty mic made it occasionally difficult to appreciate. The ladies had to contend with technical hitches for most of the concert (skipped the soundcheck maybe?) but being the troopers that they are they rode it out. By the end their harmonies came through crisp and clear. They certainly haven’t lost it.
Having reintroduced themselves to the audience and apologising for the long, long hiatus EV treated us to yet another medley; this time a tribute to some of the female artists that inspired them. They kicked off with ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ Supreme-style then took us on a nostalgic journey that incorporated ‘Truly Real’ (hooray!), ’Lady Marmalade’, ‘Tell Me Something Good’ and ‘Ring My Bell’ amongst others. They even threw in a Tina Turner and the Ikettes impersonation, hair weaves a-flying as they mimicked the (in)famous dance moves.
EV later returned to some of their classics such as Curtis Mayfield cover ‘Giving Him Something He Can Feel’ – a performance full of attitude-and a vocalised version of Salt’N’Pepa collaboration ‘Whatta Man’ on which they sung, rather than rapped, the verses. Believe me, it worked much better live than it might sound on paper.
Dawn then introduced her Lucy Pearl hit ’Don’t Mess with My Man’. The crowd were understandably ecstatic; it was a dream come true that they’d even consider singing this non-EV gem. No doubt about it; the ladies were pulling out all the stops.
Next, they invited us to ‘Free Your Mind’ and the audience happily obliged. ‘Don’t Let Go’ followed and was, predictably, the gig’s undisputed lighter-in-the-air number. It was at this moment that I realised how many male fans had turned out to support the Vogue… and I don’t think they were there just to score brownie points with their girlfriends/wives. I was aware that EV had a solid gay fanbase but even the straight boys were heartily mouthing along to each lyric.
As the evening drew to a close the room erupted when Terry belted the first note of Smokey Robinson’s ‘Who’s Loving You?’ leading into an extended version of the group’s signature re-working of the Motown classic. This could only mean one thing; they were going to finish with their breakthrough hit, ‘Hold On’. And what a way to end the night! That unmistakeable bassline, the sassy dance routines, great vocals…all the things that won our hearts in the first place.
I must give it to the EV girls; they could have easily fobbed us off with a half-hearted set under the assumption that after such a lengthy sabbatical, the London audience would be grateful for any tidbits they dashed our way. Instead they gave us a diamond show, my only complaints being the dubious sound quality and some glaring omissions from EV’s set list such as ‘Runaway Love’, ‘Whatever’ and ‘Give It Up, Turn It Loose’ which they were billed to perform. However I won’t split hairs too much. At the end of the day the only question that remains is: was it worth the two decade wait? Heck yeah!
So it’s official; the UK still loves En Vogue. Come back soon, ladies. No excuses this time.
Photos by Frank Thompson.