Sunday, June 16, 2013

98 Degrees: still hot

By John Benson

Two years ago, New Kids on the Block teamed up with The Backstreet Boys for a massively successful summer tour.

One group watching from the boy-band sidelines was 98 Degrees, which around the turn of the century scored major hits — “Because of You,” “The Hardest Thing,” “Invisible Man,” “Give Me Just One Night [Una Noche],” and “I Do [Cherish You]” – and sold more than 10 million albums.

The question was whether the temperature was right for 98 Degrees — featuring Ohio-born Nick and Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons and Justin Jeffre — to hit the road and tour for the first time in over a decade. That answer came last year with a one-off gig at The Mixtape Festival in Pennsylvania.

“We definitely were watching the New Kids, and they sort of proved it can be done,” said Cincinnati native Jeffre, calling from Connecticut. “One of the things we sort of wondered is, are the fans still going to be there? Has it been too long? What’s that going to be like? But then we did the Mixtape Music Festival, and that was a little bit of a temperature check for us. The fans were still there and still incredibly enthusiastic. They’re back and excited that we’re back.”

Similar to an alley-oop pass in basketball resulting in a thunderous slam dunk, Jeffre’s comment about the temperature check required a follow-up question about the mercury level.

“It was at least 98 degrees,” Jeffre said.

So it was last summer when the band decided to give 98 Degrees another go around resulting in its new album, “2.0,” and summer jaunt on “The Package Tour” featuring New Kids On The Block and Boyz II Men.

What’s interesting about the lineup is it aptly plays into the dichotomy of 98 Degrees. Though during its heyday the vocal group was referred to as a boy band, such as New Kids on the Block, in reality it was stylistically closer to Boyz II Men’s “MotownPhilly” sound.

“Of course we were considered a boy band, but we really put ourselves together, moved to Los Angeles and struggled to get signed,” Jeffre said. “We did it the old-fashioned way. We weren’t put together. Plus, we‘ve got a more R&B flavor. We were less about dancing and more about singing. That set us apart.”

As for the reunion, 98 Degrees was actually in good shape. During the hiatus, the band members remained in the public eye. Nick released three solo albums and is the host of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” while his brother Drew won the second season of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and appeared in the stage musicals “Rent,” “Spamalot” and “Hairspray.” Jeffre ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Cincinnati. Timmons released a solo album of his own in 2004 and was part of the VH1 reality TV series “Mission: Man Band.”

As for the group’s current tour, being out on the road now compared to a decade ago is an entirely different experience for all four members. Jeffre said today his band mates are all married with children while he remains the lone bachelor. In fact, all spouses and kids are touring, meaning other people’s backstage domesticity can put a cramp on a single guy’s lifestyle.

Jeffre said he doesn’t mind. Back in the early ’00s, the band’s fans were more than likely tweeners brought to the show by their moms. This made it difficult for the group to, let’s just say fully experience all aspects of pop-star life.

Today, those same fans are older and, more importantly, of legal age for dating and such. Add in the fact three-quarters of 98 Degrees are spoken for means Jeffre is on his own.

“It certainly takes away a lot of the competition,” Jeffre said, laughing.