They want it that way

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - This is what it felt like on the floor of the 9:30 Club in the moments before the Backstreet Boys made their triumphant return: A deep rumbling noise shook the walls. Blue lights swept the crowd. Cymbals clashed. The smoke machines went into overdrive.

And then it happened: Nick, Kevin, Howie, Brian and A.J. raced onstage in white jackets, white hats and white sneakers. A thousand voices shrieked and a thousand digital cameras were lifted into the air. The Backstreet Boys were back. All right!

This was a revival, a resurrection, a second coming - call it what you will - that had no shortage of believers. In June, the boys will release their first new album in five years. They'll follow it up with a big summer concert tour. But before then, to warm-up, they're playing small clubs like the 9:30 in Washington on Wednesday night.

Once one of the biggest teen sensations since the Monkees - Backstreet sold 30 million records in their day - the boys were sidelined in the early part of this decade by advancing age and facial hair, as well as a few random substance abuse problems.

The music world moved on. Starlets like Britney Spears and Ashlee Simpson dethroned the boy bands, and perhaps the girls who were the boys' biggest fans realized they could take only so much bubble-gum pop from guys who looked like they could be their math teachers.

The return of the Backstreet Boys, then, raises some interesting questions: Will their fans show them the love once again? Can a band succeed on camp value alone? And could any of these guys even get past the first round on American Idol?

"Comebacks are wonderful. Everyone should have two or three," says Jerry Del Colliano, a professor of music industry and recording arts at the University of Southern California. "Their fans will be back, unless their work absolutely stinks."

It doesn't. The boys can still twist, shake and spin and, even on the small 9:30 Club stage, their moves were smooth and well-rehearsed. Their vocals remain pure - at times, they still sound like a boys choir - and the songs are still the nonthreatening, soulful pop that won so many fans in the first place.

A closet fan

One returning fan was Christopher Kerns, a financial editor from Washington. "I'm a closet Backstreet fan," he admitted before Wednesday night's show.

Why a closet fan?

"Because I'm 28."

He added, "There's a certain point at which teen pop is only appropriate for teens."

Kerns correctly identified the three major demographic groups at the show: "Young women, the boyfriends of young women and gay men."

The 9:30 Club crowd seemed equally divided among those three camps, plus a smattering of dutiful fathers who would check their watches every 30 seconds in between hoisting their prepubescent daughters onto their shoulders. These are kids who grew up with the Backstreet Boys.

"I've been a fan my whole life," says Laura O'Brien, and you know she's telling the truth because she's 12 - the exact number of years the Backstreet Boys have been together. Her favorite is Nick Carter, the blond bad boy, who appeared onstage in pinstriped pants and a muscle shirt that showed off his tattoos.

The baby-faced Carter, at 25, is the youngest of the group. Kevin Richardson, at 33, is the oldest and perhaps strangest dancer of all. He does this thing where he swings his arms in front of his body like an elephant's trunk. The others - Howie Dorough, 31; Brian Littrell, 30; and A.J. McLean, 27 - are basically interchangeable.

But how was the music?

Even the most hardened critic can't deny the seductive charms of the Backstreet Boys' biggest hits, from the harmony-laden, sugary sweet ballads to the R&B-tinged; dance numbers. And when the boys broke out the catchiest song in their catalog, "I Want It That Way," even the hipper-than-thou 9:30 Club employees could be seen singing along.

The boys played all the old favorites over the course of a 90-minute set - the tearful "I'll Never Break Your Heart," the hip-hopish "Larger Than Life" and the pop delight "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)," the set-ender that had dozens of fans holding their cell phones out to the stage, transmitting the music to friends who didn't get in.

Would there be an encore?

There would. The boys played a handful of tolerable if not memorable songs off their new album (the theme of which seems to be how incomplete they are "without you") and thanked their fans for being "God's honest truth, the best in the world."

Howie (at least we think it was Howie) explained the band's comeback to the crowd: "We know it's been a little bit of time since you've seen or heard from us. We took a little bit of a break to pursue individual projects. But it's because of all of you that the family has reunited."

Plus, perhaps, that little thing called money.

After the boys went their separate ways, Nick put out a solo album in 2002 called Now or Never. It was, apparently, the latter; the album sold 236,000 copies, a far cry from the 12.1 million copies of Millennium, the best-selling Backstreet Boys album, that have been sold since its 1999 release, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Dynamics changed

Of course, that was before the downloading of music on the Internet became a thorn in the side of the music industry. One big unknown with Backstreet's comeback is whether online song trading will help the band sell CDs and gain new fans.

Del Colliano of USC says the Web will benefit the boys, if their music is still good. "They have to come back not only at the level they were at before, but even better, because the dynamics have changed," he says. "And they still appear to be pretty potent as far as entertainment, if you like their schtick."

On Wednesday night in Washington, there were plenty who did. Even when the boys' lyrics were unintelligible, when their vocals were washed out and when their dancing made them look like toy soldiers, their fans still shrieked.

"As long as there are 13-year-old girls, there will be a demand for boy bands," said Kathleen French, 21, of Potomac. She should know. She was a 13-year-old girl once. She loved her Backstreet Boys then and now she thinks she just might be able to love them again.

After the show, traffic was stopped on V Street outside the club and the perfect pop sounds of "I Want It That Way" could be heard from the idling cars. Dozens of fans surrounded the club's back door, waiting for the boys to make their exit.

"It was," Sarah Knight, a 21-year-old from Baltimore, said between drags on a cigarette, "awesome."

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