DARIEN – Will the real Backstreet Boys please stand up?
(Kudos if you get the Eminem reference — but know that this is no longer a boy band that Slim Shady would slam.)
Judging by the pop quintet’s Wednesday night performance at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, the real Boys can be found in one of three moments:
Their final two songs, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Larger Than Life,” lush with still-sharp pop choreography and Swedish synth.
Or maybe when it was they sang the title track of their 2013 album, “In a World Like This,” which features all of the Backstreet harmony but few audible traces of the ’90s boy-band hoopla.
It could be either of those, or in the many moments like them: The concert was about three-fourths greatest hits from Backstreet’s 21-year career; the rest was comprised of the band’s newer work.
But my bet is the real fabric of the Backstreet Boys was found in the very first moments of the evening, about 10 minutes before opener Avril Lavigne took the stage. Around 7:20 p.m., a little blond-hair boy walked onstage with his dad. The boy was Baylee Thomas Littrell. His dad, Brian, is one of the Backstreet Boys. Littrell introduced Baylee to the crowd by asking, “Do you mind if he does a couple of songs to warm it up?”
They didn’t mind.
Littrell joined his son in an a cappella version of a Motown classic.
“That’s a song by The Temptations called ‘My Girl,” Littrell said to his Baylee, then pointed to the crowd. “And they are my girls!”
Yes, Backstreet fans are still his girls — that would be clear soon enough. But in the meantime, Baylee playfully shooed his dad offstage and delivered two songs to backing tracks, Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”
The crowd loved it, of course, and the father-son moment was a small precursor to what was to come.
First, though, fans got a double deal with Avril Lavinge as the opener. Admittely – and maybe this is because the first time I saw her, it was at First Niagara Center – it was strange to watch Lavigne as an opener. The tour must be a tricky balancing act for her, too, since protocol demands that an opener push the headliner.
Lavigne isn’t a warm-up act, but she played the role well in her 45-minute, nine-song set. Favorites included the bouncy “Sk8trboi,” which brought the crowd to its feet and the “I’m With You,” which became a grand sing-along. On her first-ever single, “Complicated,” Lavigne added a funky twist to her lyrical delivery (think Cyndi Lauper in “She Bop”).
Shortly after Lavigne departed the stage, Backstreet emerged for a nearly two-hour set of dancing, singing and even playing. Even in Backstreet’s heyday, theirs was never completely bubblegum pop. But in their new music, and even in their presentation of Backstreet classics, most traces of sugar have been replaced by something more solid.
The band played a lengthy acoustic set, melding newer and older tunes into a compelling show within a show. Instrumentally, it was simple, but it showed the band’s depth and growth.
“Your favorite boy band is playing instruments!” said Nick Carter, a Jamestown native who, at 34, is the youngest Backstreet Boy.
At the beginning of the acoustic set, Carter had the chance to show his improv skills when bandmate Kevin Richardson’s keyboard wasn’t working. While a technician fixed Richardson’s foot pedal, Carter strummed his way through an impromptu rendition of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
Save for rare moments, Backstreet avoided re-creating their pop idol status that now belongs to One Direction. They referred to it, joked about it (Carter to crowd: “I want you to all pretend you’re 15!”), and played off it. But instead of pretending everything’s still the same (picture the Beach Boys dancing next to girls in bikinis), they gave a new version of it.
And the new version is represented in the music they’re writing. For “Love Somebody,” written by Carter and Howie Dorough, they asked the crowd to turn and say “I love you” to the people with whom they came. For “Show What You’re Made Of,” Richardson explained that he and bandmate A.J. McLean were inspired by their children.