At the band’s first show since A.J. McLean left a rehabilitation center where he was treated for alcoholism, depression and anxiety, more than 14,000 fans at the Bradley Center welcomed the group back Friday with screams and shouts of “We love you, A.J.”
The Backstreeters themselves, however, welcomed A.J. back with Silly String, dousing the mustachioed singer with the sticky stuff, along with hugs, as they wrapped up their first show in almost two months.
While that might have been the group’s playful way of saying, “Welcome back, bro,” the Boys did take time out to thank their fans for waiting for the group’s Black & Blue tour to resume as McLean sought help. After the opening salvo of “Everyone,” “Larger Than Life” and “Not For Me,” Brian Littrell spoke for the whole group, saying, “As you guys know, we took a little break. If it wasn’t for you guys, we wouldn’t be here tonight. But the Backstreet Boys aren’t the Backstreet Boys without all five of us.”
After Littrell got the mostly female, mostly teenaged crowd to cheer for each of the group’s three albums, he turned the stage over to McLean. Wearing a white suit and hat similar to what he donned for last year’s solo tour as his alter ego Johnny No Name, McLean told the crowd he was trying not to cry as he thanked them for their support.
“I just wanted to say I wish I could go out and hug each and every one of you,” the choked-up McLean said. “Thank you for letting me go through what I needed to go through to get myself better. I’m celebrating 51 days sober today.
“One day at a time,” he added, drawing on a well-known motto of 12-step addiction recovery programs.
The audience didn’t need Nick Carter’s exhortation to “scream as loud as we can for A.J.” – McLean consistently got the biggest cheers of any of the Boys throughout the 110-minute show. Looking trim and sharp with a fresh buzz cut, McLean took every opportunity to give love back to the crowd, kissing a video camera during “Don’t Want You Back,” hitting his solo with extra-soulful flourishes during “I Want It That Way” and hamming it up at any opportunity.
All five Boys conveyed a sense of excitement and relief throughout the show, exchanging knowing glances and smiles and hugging each other often. While the concert relied as much on spectacle as on music – with pyrotechnics and pre-taped skits occasionally slowing down the pace – the Backstreet Boys’ camaraderie and love for their fans came through loud and clear.
The group’s rendition of “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” delivered from a smaller, circular stage at the back of the arena, was almost somber, even as each of the Boys waved and smiled at the crowd, all the while accepting stuffed animals and other offerings from adoring fans. Crossing a bridge over the audience back to the main stage as they sang “Time” from Black & Blue, each Boy took time to reach over and grab a hand or two.
The audience’s unconditional love for the group, and particularly A.J., came through loud and clear every time one of them took a close-up on the video screen. And while some audience members admitted that the group’s disclosure of McLean’s substance abuse problems might have let a little bit of the air out of the Boys’ balloon, most said that the group’s forthrightness more than made up for it.
“It’s cool that they would be honest with their fans and not lie about it,” said 14-year-old Kristen Robbins of Madison, Wisconsin, referring to McLean’s difficulties. “But they used to say, ‘We don’t drink, we don’t smoke because it ruins the vocal cords.’ They lied in one sense, but told the truth in another.”
Nine-year-old Nicholas Benson of Milwaukee, wearing a fresh BSB T-shirt, was more forgiving. “A.J. was sick, and I’m just glad he got better,” he said.
And in the end, A.J., with Silly String hanging off his head, just smiled. Backstreet’s back, all right.