Chicago Tribune Review: 2/13/01, Chicago
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Pop review, Backstreet Boys at the Allstate Arena
BLACK, BLUE & GREEN
By Greg Kot
In the first few minutes of the Backstreet Boys' teen-pop Fantasia on Monday at the Allstate Arena, enough money went up in smoke to bail a small Third World country out of debt. It set the tone for a night of illusion that left the audience giddy and the Boys very rich. Images of asteroids bombarding the earth shook the arena with enough force to make the O'Hare-bound jets in the vicinity sound like ineffectual insects. Explosions and fireworks rocked the stage, which resembled Starship Enterprise populated with Druid dancers and a rock band. The Boys finally emerged, rising from beneath the floor on smoking pillars as five trench-coated marauders out of "The Matrix." Their mission: Save the Earth, presumably so they can continue touring at a rate of $67.50 a ticket.
Still the teen and preteen fans—hundreds in black and blue greasepaint in homage to the Boys' recent "Black & Blue" album—outscreamed even the Boys' bomb squad. The music, in turn, tried to outscream the indefatigable fans, which made for an acoustic nightmare: a booming bottom, a mulch of mid-range noises and those five pleasant voices on top, pumped up to superhero levels to sound like a 1,000-member choir. Last I checked, the Backstreet Boys had not turned into a death-metal band, but on this night they occasionally sounded like one.
The boys reminded listeners they are vocal group by singing a few bars a cappella, but these moments were rare. Each of the five would step out for a lead vocal, which established Howie Dorough's tentative command of the high-tenor range, A.J. McLean's reasonably gritty R&B mannerisms, and the serviceable blandness of Brian Littrell, Nick Carter and Kevin Richardson. For all the group's sales, its albums rely on a surprising subtlety, necessitated perhaps by the boys' pleasant but thin voices. Their biggest hit, "I Want it That Way," represents the artistic apex of the teen-pop invasion, a ballad worthy of ABBA. But in concert, the song turned into a ham-fisted audience participation number.
Of course, this wasn't a show about the range of the Boys' voices, the depth of their songwriting or even their dancing skills. This was about proximity, the illusion of intimacy with their fans. So the moments the black-and-blue kids will be talking about this week are those when Brian, Nick, Kevin, A.J. and Howie D. floated tantalizingly close, appearing on a riser behind the sound board in the middle of the audience, strolling over the floor on a bridge, working the wings of the stage to clasp hands or accept gifts. Richardson proved to be the smoothest emcee while Carter was the most self-aware, playing the crowd's estrogen-stoked emotions like a yo-yo.
Fan-worshiping songs such as "Larger Than Life" and "Everyone" set the tone, while the rest of the tunes promised chaste devotion, a cuddly refuge for young girls not quite sure what to make of more overtly sexual performers. Even when the boys acted like two-timing cads in "The Call," they quickly took it back in the "Shape of My Heart": "You can save me from the man that I've become." Just don't ask him to refund your ticket.
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