Nearly 450 million people have visited YouTube and clicked on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ video for the uber-fun novelty tune “Thrift Shop.” Yet only 5,000 of them showed up to support the duo on Saturday, when M&RL showed up in First Niagara Center for a show on their “The Heist” tour.

Clearly, we are still working out the kinks when it comes to this whole “turning Internet hits into money” thing.

You’d think a half-empty hall would be a major buzz-kill for a big arena-pop show. Yet Macklemore – whose mom most likely still thinks of him as her son, Ben Haggerty – turned the paucity of turnout into a plus.

How? He simply reframed the experience as something only the elite and in-tune might understand.

“The last time we played Buffalo, we were in this sports bar that was tiny, and there were, like, 20 people there,” Macklemore told the small but incredibly vocal and enthused crowd. “Now, there’s 5,000 of you here!”


That was smart. And smart was something Macklemore proved to be throughout the evening, whether he was making poor attendance seem like a positive, or addressing a crowd he knew was comprised largely of teens and barely post-teens in a warm, informal language they likely understood as their own, on topics ranging from intolerance and bullying to his own personal struggle with substance abuse.

Macklemore, aka Haggerty, proved to be the heart and soul of Saturday’s show. In fact, his personality eclipsed the music itself, more often than not. With his compatriot Lewis sitting atop a massive riser in the spot that would normally be given over to a drum set, the rapper worked the crowd from the front of the stage, appearing at times like some sort of hip-hop version of David Lee Roth and Axl Rose rolled into one.

The music itself wasn’t exactly going to raise the roof on its own. A soulful blend of R&B and hip-hop, bolstered by samples from other people’s records, and elevated by a cellist, violinist and a two-piece horn section, the M&RL sound came across as prefabricated and slightly sterile. The lack of a rhythm section – no live drummer and no bassist were in the house – certainly added to this absence of the human element. (Some folks call this “the groove.” Its existence depends on the interaction between living, breathing musicians.)

Yet Macklemore himself came across as a passionate, fiery and incredibly alive host. From the moment he rose atop a platform beneath the stage during opener “Ten Thousand Hours,” the skinny rapper with the modified rockabilly hairdo appeared to be completely in control of the situation. With a relatively subdued – by today’s major tour standards – light show, and tasteful rear projections adding drama to the proceedings, Macklemore single-handedly channeled the energy inherent to the songs on “The Heist” to the crowd. He was a dynamo, and his rapping maintained the flow and the slightly scratchy upper baritone tonality that surely endeared M&RL’s music to much of its fan base in the first place.

Macklemore had little help from his buddy Lewis, who seemed content to stroll around his elevated platform, sometimes acting as DJ, sometimes grabbing the microphone to do a cheerleader type of act, and sometimes banging on the random percussion scattered around his riser. Lewis is a major player when it comes to the recording studio, but far less so on the concert stage.

With only one full-length album to its credit, the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis set list was far from surprising, composed as it was of, essentially, the “Heist” album. That was fine with the crowd, all of whom appeared to be intimately familiar with all of the material, not just the hits “Thrift Shop” (Macklemore asked a guy in the crowd to pass his thrift shop-purchased faux-fur coat up to the stage, and then put it on and wore it throughout the song), “Same Love” and “Can’t Hold Us.”

There were surprises, too. When singer Mary Lambert emerged to reprise her gorgeous gospel-tinged hit from the original studio version of “Same Love,” the crowd ate it up. But when the English pop-folk singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran appeared out of nowhere and started adding his own magic to the tune, the place went nuts.

“Ed flew to Buffalo specifically to do this,” Macklemore told the happily stunned crowd.

Macklemore’s between-song raps and rants came across as the high points of the show. He is difficult to dislike, from an audience’s perspective. And his blatant, occasionally disturbing honesty and forthright nature came across as genuine. His raps were motivational and appeared to be making an impact on the largely teenage audience.

So M&RL weren’t quite ready to make the leap from YouTube sensations to arena headliners. This show would’ve been a sellout at, say, Shea’s. That’s OK. Macklemore should build it up slowly, in an “old-school” fashion. Based on Saturday’s show, it certainly seems that the duo still has some important work to do.