At least it will have history's endorsement: When city officials speak of the official opening of Raleigh Amphitheater, downtown's new $2.5 million public space and the area's third major amphitheater, they'll rightfully refer to it as a success that bested all reasonable expectations.
During a six-hour, soupy-summer-night concert Friday, between 4,500 and 5,000 people moseyed through the amphitheater's gates to see seven local acts that, at best, typically fill small to mid-sized clubs. Sure, some complained—too much concrete, not enough grass, no cheap beer. To gripe, though, they had to be there. The amphitheater accomplished its goal, then: Bring people to downtown Raleigh and entertain them.
But Friday night was a political feint, a bone thrown to localism by a venue that—from its proposed Bud Light sponsorship to its rote booking—could barely be more generic. It was a last-minute token and test, meant to show off the amphitheater and to analyze its logistics before people had to pay to enter.
"Our budget to put the event on is zero, so I've got to find a way," explained Doug Grissom, assistant director of Raleigh Convention Center, late last month. "We threw it together—like, we got The Connells last week."
The real opening, or the first stop by the sort of national touring acts on which the venue will depend for profits, came Sunday with Backstreet Boys, the fully grown boy band that, along with *NSYNC, ran the radio in the mid- to late-'90s. The four remaining men—Kevin Richardson, the oldest Boy, left in 2006 with what we can assume was some scrap of dignity—met expectations, filling their 105-minute set with more than a dozen hits, albeit often in abbreviated medley form. The four danced and sang in carefully choreographed routines, switching outfits and moods every few songs as a lone musician—busy behind a center-stage bank of drum machines and consoles—added waifish acoustic guitar samples and emasculated drumbeats. Four female dancers—all beautiful, each of a different race—doubled as servants, bringing the boys towels, microphone stands and stools.
And if the crowd of 3,500 (small enough to leave the permanent green seating in the amphitheater's middle nearly empty) seemed slight for opening night historics, it was generous with its hysterics. (Neither Live Nation nor Raleigh Convention Center could confirm attendance figures by Tuesday night.) When the group burst through a screen and launched into, apropos of everything, "(Everybody) Backstreet's Back," the collective squeal punctured like an ice pick. Many of those who weren't dressed for the dance club sported handmade T-shirts that swapped subtlety for loyalty: "Team Nick," one read. Indeed, when Nick Carter did his little swivel-and-smile, or when anyone on stage motioned to any member of the audience, it seemed as if adulthood had not been reversed but rather, suspended. Even during a brief but heavy rainstorm, the crowd—wet, but welcoming—stayed with its Boys.
More interesting than the Backstreet Boys' sappy dross or cock-pop dancing, though, is the message that their presence presents. At some point, one assumes, Wilson Howard or Grant Lyman—the Live Nation ringers who book the new amphitheater—surely approached Raleigh Convention Center officials in charge of the space with the idea of allowing the boy band to premiere the city's newest pet. One also assumes that, like most reasonable adults, someone chortled at the notion and their own remembrances of the group. Ostensibly, they co-signed on the show.
At the moment, Raleigh seems swollen with energy, especially downtown. Whether in its continually blossoming art and music scenes or the thriving mass of locally owned, innovative restaurants, people are making risky—and often rewarding—choices. This isn't that. Rather, the city's concession to the Backstreet Boys confirms generally every complaint you've ever heard about the Capital City—too safe, too boring, too predictable, too plain, too white. On Sunday night, yeah, pretty much.
From their backstory (shaped, named and fostered by loathsome impresario and convicted Ponzi scheme felon Lou Pearlman) to their present self-parodying predicament (A.J. McLean is a balding 32-year-old singing ruminations from a discarded elementary school diary), Backstreet Boys exist only to express the contrived. Though they named their 2009 album, and the tour that brought them to Raleigh, This is Us, their show Sunday night felt like a marketing machine for memories. From hokey video montages that inserted members of the band into films like The Fast and the Furious to gee-golly questions about who in the crowd had seen the group as a preteen, the "concert" was nothing more than a meticulously programmed play on the past, set on repeat and injected with words like "Raleigh" and "new pavilion." It was perfect, and cold, like Vegas in short pants.
In her fawning review of the show in Monday's The News & Observer, Sadia Latifi, who generally covers the Town of Cary for The Cary News, affectionately referred to the band as The Boys and said their old hits stand as a superior alternative to "top 40 airwaves ... dominated by Auto-Tune." Latifi didn't stop with unwarranted, skin-deep nostalgia, though. "Triangle audiophiles scoffed at the booking, the first for the venue," she said.
Actually, like the Backstreet Boys, the gripes have almost nothing to do with the music. They have everything to do with perception and purpose: Is Raleigh a city that's willing to encourage new ideas and new art with more than lip service, or is it content to trot out faceless entertainment to take laps around Raleigh Convention Center's blandly decorated victory lane?
That's bigger than any question about naming rights or volume levels could ever be.