REVIEW: Backstreet Boys push beyond nostalgia at SAP Center

Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough, Backstreet Boys

Backstreet Boys perform at the SAP Center in San Jose on Aug. 4, 2019. Photos: Sean Liming.

SAN JOSE — The plan could have been much simpler for ’90s boy band Backstreet Boys: Show up, knock out a greatest hits set and send everyone home happy. The pop group had other plans at a sold-out SAP Center show on Sunday.

Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean, and Howie Dorough packed a two-hour set with material that spanned their 25 years together with a healthy serving of new material from 2019’s DNA. One of the most surprising parts of the night was the sheer frenzy from the 17,000-plus in attendance throughout the course of the night. It may not quite have reached the fever pitch of the group’s early days, but the 30-somethings showed their appreciation for their pop heroes in a boisterous fashion.

Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough, Backstreet Boys

Backstreet Boys perform at the SAP Center in San Jose on Aug. 4, 2019.

The Backstreet Boys opened the show in grand fashion with 1996’s tune “I Wanna Be With You,” taking full advantage of the stage’s pentagonal shapes, stairs, ramps, lights and multiple large video screens. The band kept up the pace with “The Call” and “Don’t Want You Back.”

What makes the Backstreet Boys resurgence a compelling story is the perspective that they’ve gained along the way. While not necessarily the last ’90s boy band left, they are one of the few that have the star power to fill an arena. While achieving globe success with albums like Backstreet’s Back and Millennium, the previous decade brought some challenges for the band, including legal clashes with management, McLean’s battle with substance abuse and Richardson’s departure. In the years that followed, the group slowly put the pieces back together.

Richardson rejoined the group and Backstreet Boys fought their way back, culminating in a long-running Vegas residency in 2017. All that has led to a live performance that was both endearing and exciting. The members were clearly playing loose and having fun, but still kept their vocal harmonies as tight as ever.

The DNA songs took the forefront of the first half of the set, allowing each member a song to speak with the crowd, thank them for their support over the years and reminisce about their favorite stories. The Backstreet Boys covered pretty much the entire record, though oftentimes those songs were condensed or truncated arrangements, highlighted by “Nobody Else,” “New Love” and “Chateau.”

One of the show’s more bizarre but oddly funny moments included a conversation between McLean and Richardson as they attempted a wardrobe quick change between onstage. The self-deprecating banter was funny and another example of the group not taking itself too seriously.

“Fifteen years ago, you would have wanted to see us do this out here,” Richardson joked. “Trust me, it’s much better we’re behind this [barrier].”

Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough, Backstreet Boys

Backstreet Boys perform at the SAP Center in San Jose on Aug. 4, 2019.

The middle portion of the show focused on what the band excels at: Vocal harmonies and melodies. Songs like “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and “As Long As You Love Me” sounded timeless in their execution. The dance moves and choreography were smooth but never over the top. The material has aged exceedingly well, never sounding dated or out of place with modern sounds.What was more impressive is the band’s harmonizing has only improved with time and the individual members’ performances were impressive. One of the aspects that make the Backstreet Boys what they are is that no one member outshines the rest of the group. There’s no Justin Timberlake. The group os a sum of its parts rather than a star surrounded by complementary vocalists.

Later in the show, a video accompanied the performance of new track “No Place,” showing the group the members’ wives and children. It served as a reminder of not only how much they had grown up but that their fanbase grew up with them. The group closed out the third quarter of its set with a superb performance of “All I Have to Give,” even featuring a step-perfect reenactment of the original choreography.

The final segment had enough firepower to exist as its own standalone set with the Backstreet Boys’ biggest, boldest and most danceable tunes—with the backbeat reimagined and the bass turned up all the way: “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” “It’s Gotta Be You,” “Get Another Boyfriend,” “The One” “I Want It That Way.” The final tune, which concluded the main set, brought on a massive singalong.

After a break the group returned wearing San Jose Sharks jerseys to close out the show with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and a revved-up version of “Larger Than Life,” Backstreet Boys’ ode to fans that was ripe with pyrotechnics, confetti and streamers.

The Backstreet Boys kept the concert all in the family. The opener was country artist Baylee Littrell; son of Brian Littrell.

Opening with a funny video of the Backstreet Boys offering him their advice on how to succeed as a pop star, the 16-year-old Littrell took the stage and showed off some major chops. Littrell performed well-written songs like “Six String Heart,” “Some Guys” and “Boxes,” with a poise that could only be bolstered through the guidance of his dad, and didn’t disappoint.

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