TAMPA — Margaret Johnson sipped a Topo Chico margarita in the sweltering parking lot outside the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre, wearing a homemade tank top reading “Vintage BSB groupie.”
She and her friends had camped out in matching Backstreet Boys merch since 4:30 pm on Tuesday. Really, they had been anticipating the show much longer.
“I’ve been waiting to see them since I was 14,” said Johnson, now 37. “I’ve had these lyrics ingrained in my mind.”
Ahead of the Tampa DNA World Tour stop, clusters of fans tailgated in lawn chairs, bumping the Backstreet Boys’ greatest hits and downing jello shots. They rocked the tiny butterfly hair clips or space buns of their childhood, stepping back to the ’90s with tattoo chokers and homemade shirts reading, “I should have married a Backstreet Boy.” Never mind that many were already married, some with children of their own, all finally with an adult’s disposable income to make their teenage dreams come true.
Many fans purchased tickets way back when the tour was announced, holding onto them for two and a half years as the show was pushed back three times.
“We’re just glad it’s finally on,” said Michelle Reidy, 37. “The pandemic slowed things down.”
Aiden Reidy, wearing a T-shirt labeled “Emotional support husband,” piped in: “At the end of the day, Backstreet’s back.”
Indeed they are. The band, which formed in Orlando and played its first show at Sea World nearly 30 years ago, was quick to remind fans where it all began.
“Tonight we’re gonna go down memory lane,” said Brian Littrell, shedding his sparkling sequined jacket as he addressed fans for the first time. “We’re gonna sing all your favorites and I hope you feel like you’re 8 or 10 or 12 again.”
In roughly two hours, they burst through 30-something songs, new and old. It was their first time playing in Tampa Bay since 2013. Their latest album, “DNA,” came out in 2019, before the pandemic forced them to push their world tour back, so songs were still technically fresh. Still, no surprise that the classics from their earliest albums elicited the most enthusiasm: “Shape of My Heart,” “As Long As You Love Me,” and “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).”
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Time has passed, and the Boys (as we are obliged to call them even though the oldest member, Kevin Richardson, turns 51 this year) have evolved. They’ve taken breaks from working together and tried solo careers and gotten back together. The members have wives and children, whose faces were projected onstage in the music video for “No Place.”
Being family men (sorry, Boys) did not stop them from grabbing their crotches, rolling their hips, and at one point, changing onstage and flinging their underpants into the crowd.
“Hey Kev, remember when all the fans would throw their bras and panties onstage?” AJ McLean said. “Why don’t we return the favor?”
In between the shimmying and crooning, each member took a moment to reminisce and thank the crowd. They played “Larger than Life,” singing a love letter to the fans who got them there. At one point, Nick Carter rocked a personalized Tampa Bay Buccaneers jersey and led a Tampa Bay chant.
“This means so much to me, being back in the place that put me up on this stage right here for close to 30 years,” he said over the cheers. “If you guys don’t know, I’m from Tampa. And I’ve missed you so much.”
Throughout the evening, the Boys showed that they still remembered all the details and choreography: the swooshing of the knees, the tossing of a fedora, pointing to the sky and ending with arms crossed over their chests. Littrell sang smiling, waving down at the wailing fans in the pit. McLean rocked fingerless gloves and a fishnet top and a rhinestone-covered hoodie (not all at once — there were numerous costume changes, of course). Carter, now 41, still had the goofy energy of a teenage boy, grinning as he roasted his fellow band members’ early forms: Howie Dorough was the only one with chest hair, Littrell arrived in Florida with a country twang and overalls.
“If you go and look at the teeny bop magazines and you go pull out AJ’s face, you’ll notice it was really perfect,” Carter said. “That’s because he painted his beard on her.”
After the glow of “I Want It That Way,” which earned one of the loudest singalongs of the night, Carter flopped on his back in the middle of the stage, soaking it all in. It felt like he was having the best time of his life from him.
The screaming fans seemed to agree.