ORLANDO, Florida As the Backstreet Boys neared the end of their pyrotechnics-filled, not-quite-sold-out tour kickoff here Friday night, the group's A.J. McLean reached out to a fan way, way out.
As McLean slapped five with audience members over the gleaming edge of a catwalk in the middle of the TD Waterhouse Centre, he noticed one straining hand out of reach. The muscle-tee-clad singer dropped to the catwalk's floor and stretched most of his body over the side, coming close to a painful fall as he managed to grasp his fan's hand.
Despite the slick trappings of Friday's show hydraulic lifts, trap doors, indoor fireworks, nearly as many costume changes as songs at its heart it seemed all about such intimate moments, all about sealing the bond between fan and Backstreet Boy.
The group began the show with requisite Jackson-family-style bombast a video clip of asteroids speeding toward the earth led to real explosions onstage and the group's eventual emergence in long leather coats, with synthesized thunder accompanying every movement.
Shaking their hips to a pop and slap bass line in the kind of synchronized boy-band dance that they've avoided in their recent videos, BSB kicked into the fan-worshipping song "Everyone" from Black & Blue. The track's lyrics are tailor-made to open a concert: "Let's get on with the show/ Turn the lights down low/ You were there from the start/ We know who you are/ and this one goes out to you."
Shrieks from the crowd mounted as the group and its backing band which ably replicated and expanded the studio recordings of each song moved into the hit "Larger Than Life," which sports an identical fan-praising message. BSB spiced it up with karate kicks and red-faced vocal intensity from Nick Carter and Brian Littrell.
After a song that doesn't thank fans even once in its lyrics the cheating-woman track "Not for Me" the group stopped the music for an interlude in which each member got onstage alone and, yes, thanked the fans.
"I get to talk to you first I feel so blessed," said Littrell, who vied with Carter as the group's most scream-worthy member. "We wouldn't have anything if it wasn't for the Backstreet fans."
Carter, resembling an Abercrombie & Fitch model with his new burly physique, used his moment alone with the crowd to poke fun at the numerous pre-teens in attendance: "I like your skirt. Did you get that at the Gap? Or was it the Baby Gap?" To their credit, a good portion of the audience laughed.
From there, the Backstreet Boys who also include Howie Dorough and Kevin Richardson (who had his hair braided in tight cornrows) ran through their formidable battle chest of hits, from "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" to their latest chart-toppers, "The Call" and "More Than That."
Despite Carter and Littrell's favored status, the group's performance was meticulously democratic. All five voices Dorough's sweet-toned belting, McLean's nasal funk, Richardson and Littrell's smooth crooning, Carter's gospel fervor were featured in prominent solo spots.
Carter's only spotlight-hogging moments came on his infamous "am I sexual" line in "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," which he milked more strenuously each time he repeated it. The crowd, needless to say, did not mind.
The group even took up actual instruments for a while, with McLean banging away at percussion instruments and Littrell and Carter briefly strumming or at least holding guitars.
There were several pre-taped skits, mostly timed to allow the group to change costumes or for the crew to prepare special effects. One particularly meandering bit set in the dressing room appeared to be meant only to run down the clock while the group got ready for the night's neatest trick popping up on a secondary stage in the back of the arena to sing "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely."
The second stage was close enough to the fans that the group was probably able to see some of the arena's dozens of empty seats, but the guys didn't sweat it. Eight years after forming, the Backstreet Boys appeared comfortable with their status as the longest-lasting boy band or vocal group, as they prefer even if 'NSYNC are bigger right now.
And anyway, the group's days of making or reclaiming fans don't seem to be over. "I'm like 18 years old now and I thought I was growing out of it," said one convert, Orlando native Janet Moyer. "But we went and it was totally amazing. Now I'm obsessed again" (see "Backstreet Boys Kickoff Draws Young And Young At Heart").