Anyone doubting the seemingly eternal appeal of the boy band era needed only to scope out the line wrapping around the block outside Manhattan’s Hammerstein Ballroom shortly before 6:30 p.m. last night, hours before a Backstreet Boys show. In the battle of fans’ evolved musical taste vs. nostalgia, nostalgia will always come out on top. The man behind me in line was so bemused by the fans braving the rain for a chance to be eight inches closer to Nick, Howie, A.J., and Brian that he turned to his girlfriend to say, “There are going to be crazy girls, of course. It’s a boy band.”
His statement echoed in my head as I walked ever-so-confidently into the general admission ballroom. Having been to three Backstreet Boys concerts in my youth (if you consider five years ago “my youth”), I felt like I had grown up since those days. I was sure that much of the obnoxiousness, fan bickering, and “crazy girls” I had encountered in the past would be subdued, if not completely absent. I was wrong. It was, in fact, worse than before.
Some of the aggressive fans had morphed into aggressive moms who were intent on protecting their concert-newbie young. Then there were those fans who seemed to have gained not children, but an insatiable thirst for alcohol for since the prime of their Backstreet days. Watching the two crowds together was like watching foamy-mouthed hyenas searching for a stray wildebeest. (I’m not sure which group was which animal in that metaphor.) I witnessed two significant shove- and scream-fests during the show, one of which resulted in tears. Add to that fun the fact that a mom punched me twice in the shoulder as I attempted to flee the ruckus, and you can color me bewildered. I envy not the kind security guards who tried to talk the madness down. For the most part, their threats of ejection from the venue worked, but not without stink-eye exchanges between the battling girls. Perhaps my side (stage right) was particularly aggressive, but I don’t think that was the case. I overheard three other scuffle stories as I walked out of the building at the end of the show. Next time I see the Backstreet Boys, I plan on bringing brass knuckles for my protection.
On to the show itself: The 22-song setlist included mostly old tunes and, I believe, none from 2007’s Unbreakable. At a concert where ticket sales relied on fans from the Boys’ more popular days, this was a smart move. As expected, the four remaining band members (Kevin Richardson left in 2006) were on-point performance-wise. These guys pride themselves on their vocal chops, and when you see them live, it’s easy to figure out why. A.J. McLean, known to the greater public for his 2001 rehab stint, has always had the strongest pipes in the band, and he especially shone last night during “Incomplete.” Few singers I’ve seen can put so much power behind a single note that the veins on their neck pop out, yet still manage to sound musical and well-toned.
I did feel that the band has yet to properly adjust to the smaller venues they find themselves in these days. Their ground-based choreography was often hard to see from most places on the general admission floor. Much of the band’s movement would have been better suited for large stadiums with huge screens on either side of the stage. Yet my guest, a Backstreet concert virgin, told me that she appreciated the Boys’ animated stage presence and interaction. After watching so many concerts and performances from a single group, one sometimes forgets to appreciate the small things that they bring to the stage. There’s still nothing quite like the relationship Backstreet shares with its fans: It’s personal, and it makes you feel less like a member of a crowd and more like a member of a (sometimes violent) club.
I suppose that’s why it was strange to hear McLean howl the kicker phrase to the band’s 1997 hit “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” at the beginning of the show. For many fans, Backstreet never really went anywhere. I imagine the girl on the third floor mezzanine seats who was halfway over the protective railing during much of the concert would agree.
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