Air Canada Centre, Toronto - September 12, 2001

KIERAN GRANT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:22 PM ET

TORONTO -- Must the show go on? That's a matter of opinion, but the answer was yes for The Backstreet Boys last night, as the Orlando-based pop act went ahead with the first of three scheduled performances at the Air Canada Centre. It had come as a surprise to many that, with so many other shows being cancelled in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the U.S., they decided to play. It was even more surprising when the group announced yesterday that one of the members of their road crew, Daniel Lee, had been among those killed on one of the hijacked planes that hit the World Trade Centre. Lee had booked time off the tour following a show in Boston Monday to fly home to L.A. to be with his pregnant wife. The group had every reason not to perform. Instead, they pulled no punches, delivering the kind of lavish song 'n' dance revue that gets their young fanbase screaming. In the process they also raised money for the American Red Cross' U.S.A. Appeal Relief Fund. Promoters Clear Channel Entertainment Canada said that one U.S. dollar from each ticket sold to all three Toronto shows would go to the fund. Last night's audience was sold-out at 10,000, though a noticeable number of seats in the stands were empty. "I'm tired of being sad and mad," Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson told the crowd. "I'm ready to enjoy something." Still, behind the flossy tunes and elaborate special effects was a unavoidable and undeniable pall. Following an opening set by pop-R&B singer Sisqo -- who at one point paused from his constant demands for the audience to "Screeeam!" to admit, "It's real hard for me to be up here tonight" -- the Backstreet Boys emerged in their street clothes under normal house lighting and, flanked by Sisqo's group and their entire road crew, held a brief memorial for Lee and the victims of Tuesday's attacks. "We've all been affected," singer Brian Littrell told the crowd. "We want to take a second of your time and remember somebody who was very close to us." In what was easily the most effective and dramatic moment of the Backstreet Boys' appearance -- even though it wasn't actually part of their performance -- Littrell had the teen-scream audience observe a heavy silence for 10 seconds. There was another flash of seriousness later when Howie Dorough, ever the grounding force, dedicated the show to his sister, who passed away three years ago to the day from lupus. But the show that followed was likely intended to get the audience's minds off the very things they'd remained silent for. Still, whether the group are determined professionals or just convincing actors, their interminable two-hour set of revolving routines couldn't help but ring with an especially weird hollowness. With fame and fortune, the Backstreet Boys have expanded the presentation of their music to include more than just five-part vocal harmonies and strutting dance steps. There was a multi-media opening that included crashing meteors and giant explosions with dancers, dressed inexplicably in what looked like monks' robes, falling all around. There were ambitious visual displays and comedy bits, including a pre-taped interview that had the group still together in the future, made up as crotchety old men. There was a prog-funk jam that, however briefly, seemed to have the audience in a state of perplexed paralysis. There were countless ballads, climaxing with Shape Of My Heart and new single Drowning. By the time it was all done, the crowd seemed uncharacteristically eager to leave, teaming out before the backing band had even finished playing. At least A.J. McLean was able to see some humour earlier in the show: Making light of his recent drinking problem and subsequent trib to rehab two months ago, he thanked his fans for their support while joking off-handedly that he was 70 days sober, but regretted he hadn't arrived a day earlier to mark the more "kinky" number of 69. Appropriate? Like the show itself, that's a matter of opinion. (More on The Backstreet Boys and Sisqo)

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