Backstreet Boys review – sympathy, hugs and immaculate harmonies

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O2 Arena, London
Suffused with awareness of the death of Nick Carter’s brother Aaron, the crowd’s support for the boyband definers was rewarded by a flawless set

Stepping up … Backstreet Boys at O2 Arena, London. Photograph: Alecsandra Dragoi/the Guardian
Stepping up … Backstreet Boys at O2 Arena, London. Photograph: Alecsandra Dragoi/the Guardian

The energy in the O2 Arena on Sunday is rowdy. Groups of women are waving flashing LED sticks and taking pulls from plastic bottles of red wine. Millennial friendship groups in white cargo trousers and bucket hats are filming each other with phone torches on. A girl in a diamante camo cap, carrying a cardboard cut-out of Kevin Richardson’s face, is shouting at her friend about someone being “done for assault”. It’s the first day of the UK leg of Backstreet Boys’ DNA World Tour (for 2022, at least – the tour, which has been running since 2019, has passed through London before) and the hours leading up to it were full of uncertainty as to whether or not it would go ahead.

Taking place the day after the tragic death of Nick Carter’s younger brother Aaron was announced, a heavy cloud hung over the proceedings. “My heart is broken,” Nick wrote on Instagram shortly before the show. “Even though my brother and I had a complicated relationship, my love for him has never faded.” He was visibly emotional during the two hour, 32-song set. But the mood of the night was one of palpable support, both from the audience and from fellow bandmates Kevin, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough and Brian Littrell, who hugged and high-fived him throughout.

The arena erupted into applause when Nick sang solo for the first time, and screams of “we love you Nick” were peppered throughout the night – particularly during the introduction of Breathe, a ballad about “family”, which they dedicated to Aaron. “We wanted to find a moment in our show to recognise him,” Kevin said, while they gathered into a group huddle.

As far as high production pop mega-tours go, the show itself was flawless. It’s difficult to imagine how Backstreet Boys – a 29-year-old group, assembled at the dawn of an era that saw pop culture dictated largely by the desires of teenage girls – could work in a far more cynical decade, when everyone on stage and off is in their mid-30s on average. Those concerns are blown away within the first few minutes, however, when it becomes apparent that their voices are immaculate, the harmonies on which they have always prided themselves have become better with age, and even the dodgiest of actions-to-lyrics dance moves still make you want to join in like it’s Cheese Night at the world’s greatest student’s union.

Naturally, they traffic somewhat in nostalgia. References to Smash Hits, Ant and Dec (for whom they opened on their first ever UK tour), and the year 1999 abound – particularly during a seven-song run of early hits towards the end of the night, including Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) and I Want It That Way. Calling on their legacy as one of the more jocular boybands, there were plenty of hi-jinks to keep people entertained, including more outfit changes than Lady Gaga (I lost count around five) and a skit that saw AJ and Kevin do a bit of fandom-reversal by taking their trousers off and throwing them into the audience. A few songs were given a modern revamp – Backstreet’s Back was treated to a whomping EDM remix, while closer Larger Than Life cut to the instrumental for Timbaland’s The Way I Are – which was probably unnecessary, but fun all the same.

For a group so moored in a particular time and place, it can be easy to overlook Backstreet Boys’ continued impact. In 2019, they became the first group since Led Zeppelin to have their first 10 albums reach the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, and the DNA tour is scheduled to run well into 2023. A large part of their appeal comes down to the fact that these are simply some of the most electric pop songs in modern history – I defy anyone not to fling their arms towards heaven and scream “TELL ME WHY” during the chorus of Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely. But they are also songs designed to be heard in a crowd. Much like the fabled Boys themselves, they come alive when surrounded by people screaming.

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