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Urban Music Fest preview: Sounds of Boyz II Men have aged with amazing grace

Harmonic R&B crooners who were superstars in the '90s play Saturday

Patrick Caldwell

Ready to feel old?

On Feb. 14, "Cooleyhighharmony," the multiplatinum debut album from Motown singing sensation Boyz II Men, turned 21 years old. If "Cooleyhighharmony" were a human being, it could vote. It could drink and smoke. "Cooleyhighharmony" could go to war, and die for its country.

Perhaps no one can break that down better than Homer Hill. Hill, 51, is the rhythm and blues aficionado who books the Austin Urban Music Fest at Auditorium Shores - where Boyz II Men will take the stage Saturday night, opening for close collaborator, songwriter and R&B legend in his own right Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Babyface and Boyz II Men anchor two days of R&B that also feature young singer Miguel and recent Grammy Award winner Melanie Fiona, among others.

"If you're a 20-, 25-year-old young person, Boyz II Men … that's something you grew up listening to, either because you liked it or because it's what your parents were listening to," says Hill. "A lot of that younger generation, they grew up with people my age playing them Boyz II Men or Babyface or Whitney Houston while they slept or during car trips."

A lot has changed in those 21 years. The presciently named band has evolved from a quartet of boys - Nathan and Wanya Morris, Shawn Stockman and Michael McCary were but teenagers when they formed the group - to a trio of family men. Bass singer McCary - whose spoken word interludes made him the Barry White of the '90s - left the band in 2003 because of chronic back problems. After summiting the most dizzying heights of commercial success in the mid-'90s - weepy Mariah Carey collaboration "One Sweet Day" remains the longest running No. 1 song in U.S. chart history, and sophomore album "II" shifted over 30 million units - Boyz II Men started a steady commercial decline with 1997's "Evolution."

Contemporary R&B grew ever more sexually explicit, synthesizer-driven and auto-tuned, leaving the comparatively simple and sweet harmonies of Boyz II Men behind. Though they continue to tour and record - would-be comeback album "Twenty," released last year, has enjoyed modest praise and attention - Boyz II Men were never quite able to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was their '90s success.

There are signs that even Boyz II Men themselves have a sense of this. As Nate Morris told website Urban Daily in 2011, "We're the most popular unpopular group in the world."

All of which is tremendously regrettable. Although they may primarily be a nostalgia act at this point - well, so are the Pixies. Only two things matter in live music: the songs and the chops. And Boyz II Men have both in abundance. Their singles retain their earworm quality even 15 years after the fact. And a cursory search of YouTube reveals that the Morris brothers and Stockman still have the soaring, tight-knit harmonies that made them famous. Even absent McCary, they sound stellar. Type "Boyz II Men 2012" into YouTube and you'll find a sea of amateurishly shot concert footage from a run of recent European dates. All the shakiness and bad sound in the world doesn't obscure one important fact: Those audiences are having a blast.

If you're on the fence about whether one of the most distinctly '90s of groups is still worth seeing, drop your cynicism. Give Boyz II Men a shot, and join what's likely to be a rapturous crowd of true believers - old and young.

"Oddly, I've seen a lot of young people buying tickets, and I always assume it's for Melanie or Miguel" says Hill. "And they tell me, `No, I want to see Boyz II Men.' And I'm like `Are you sure?' And the answer is always yes, because they listened to this stuff as kids. It's like Al Green or Earth, Wind and Fire. Eventually, we all fall in love with this kind of R&B. It's timeless."

The Five Best Boyz II Men Deep Cuts

When Boyz II Men conquered the world for a hot minute in the 1990s, it was largely thanks to an arsenal of undeniable singles. "End of the Road," "I'll Make Love To You," "On Bended Knee" - if you shuffled awkwardly at a school dance between the years of 1991 and 1997, you know these songs.

But with the best will in the world, Boyz II Men at their commercial peak were practically the dictionary example of a "singles band" - one of those acts that pumped out memorable radio gems but found it harder to string together an album worth your $18 at Sam Goody. Still, the sprawling Boyz II Men discography contains a few hidden treasures.

1. "Sympin," off "Cooleyhighharmony" (1991)

"Motownphilly" aside, the world primarily remembers Boyz II Men as purveyors of tear-jerking ballads and satin-smooth baby-making jams. This is a shame, because the group were first a new jack swing outfit. And they were spectacular at it; "Cooleyhighharmony" is loaded with big, brassy fusions of hip-hop beats and the grooves of then-contemporary R&B. "Sympin" is probably the best, from its bizarre sample of John Barry's James Bond theme to it's banging drum machine beats.

2. "U Know," off "II" (1994)

Speaking of James Bond, "U Know" sounds something like a Boyz II Men spin on a James Bond title song. Unless you have an extremely specific and mildly overactive imagination, you've probably never considered what such a thing might sound like. But "U Know" sprawls out with aplomb, with a slow build, a lightly threatening guitar riff and surprisingly subtle string section.

3. "Sara Smile," off "Throwback, Vol. 1" (2004)

The general rule for Boyz II Men cover songs is that the less obvious the cover, the more rewarding it's likely to be. The group's takes on soul and R&B classics tend to be bland and inoffensive. For all their virtues, what can Boyz II Men really bring to "Let's Stay Together" that Al Green didn't? But they often excel on the covers you don't see coming. The best example is the band's velvety version of Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile." Sure, it's cornball, but it's "Sara Smile" - it's supposed to be cornball.

4. "Muzak," off "The Remedy" (2006)

This one is a bit of a cheat, because "Muzak" was indeed released as a single. But the song flew way under the radar - largely because "The Remedy," Boyz II Men's seventh studio album, was initially released only in Japan. That's a pity, because while "The Remedy" isn't a brilliant album, it's probably Boyz II Men's catchiest effort since "II." "Muzak" is a peppy, prancing highlight, a smooth, jazzy jam with a relaxed musical sensibility.

5. "Benefit of a Fool," off "Twenty" (2011)

It's a perplexing mystery that Boyz II Men haven't joined Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Raphael Saadiq on the retro-soul revival train. One would think they'd be perfectly positioned to capitalize on the modern Motown throwback movement. After all, unlike your Aloe Blaccs and your Mayer Hawthornes, they were once actually signed to Motown. "Benefit of a Fool" offers an idea of what such a direction might sound like. All upbeat horns and soaring harmonies, it's a rapturous kernel of pop-soul perfection.

Past Austin Urban Music Festival headliners

The fest has been bringing classic and contemporary music to Austin in a family friendly environment since 2006. Past acts:

2006: Chaka Khan, Ray Parker Jr., Michael Henderson, Cherelle, Adina Howard

2007: Angie Stone, Dwele, Kindred the Family Soul, O’Jays, Mint Condition, Cameo, Bar Kays, Dazz Band, the Original Sugarhill Gang

2008: Jeffrey Osborne, Trey Songz, After 7

2009: Cameo, Boyz II Men, Original Sugarhill Gang

2010: Morris Day & The Time, Joe, After 7, and Groupo Fantasma

2011: Charlie Wilson, Tank, Ledisi, and N’Dambi

Austin Urban Music Fest