Think fast: Where’s the last place you observed five guys with an average age of roughly 19 hanging out in their natural habitat?
If you live in America, it was likely in the pizza-and-dirty-socks-scented halls of a freshman dorm. And on Sunday night at a sold-out Verizon Center, U.K.-based boy band One Direction revealed that, despite their jaunty accents and a global horde of preteen fangirls, they’re not that different from your standard bunch of college-age boys: goofy, awkward, permanently bleary-eyed and about five minutes away from growing out of this phase entirely.
It was a little underwhelming for a first-class international pop sensation, but it’s not like the arena full of screeching tweenagers noticed — or cared.
Formed in 2010 when Simon Cowell whipped up a boy band out of five failed “X Factor” contestants, One Direction took third place in the British show’s seventh season, then released “Up All Night” in 2011. It earned critical and commercial approval for its bouncy power-pop sound and its successful revival of the forgotten squeaky-clean, puppy-love boy-band format. Their latest, November’s “Take Me Home,” consolidated the group’s early success by quickly going platinum.
The boys — Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson — arrived onstage Sunday after a charming video segment in which the viewer was invited to join the gentlemen of One Direction as they hosted a bumping house party. Each one hammed it up for the camera, with gags such as Horan falling into a pool and a robe-clad Styles smirking impishly from behind a book while smoking a pipe in the library.
That opening conceit, though, may have telegraphed their live appearance a little too perfectly. The group’s introductory rendition of “Up All Night” felt a little morning-after groggy: The five members took turns pacing from one end of the stage to the other as they sang, tending to the fans on either side by waving and blowing muscle-memory kisses. They continued into generically catchy tunes such as “I Would” and “Heart Attack,” sometimes sitting down onstage (they seemed grateful for the rest) in strategically placed spots where roving cameras could easily project their faces onto jumbo screens.
Horan busted out a few cheeky robot moves, and Payne — the most Bieber-esque of the bunch — showed off some fancy footwork in his gleaming white sneakers. That made it hard not to wax nostalgic for ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys and other boy bands of yesteryear. Even though the memory of those baggy tear-away pants still haunts, at least those guys danced; One Direction, by contrast, looked most comfortable with their feet planted behind five standing microphones.
Once Horan strapped on a guitar, the show received a new jolt of energy — and it became startlingly clear that One Direction isn’t aiming to be ’N Sync in skinny jeans.
After riffing on Oasis’s ’90s classic “Wonderwall” for a few moments (and encouraging the crowd to sing along, at which point the shrieking preteen audience fell silent for the first time all night), the group later launched into an earnest cover of Wheatus’s angsty 2000 anthem “Teenage Dirtbag.” Flames and comic-book imagery lit up the stage behind their thumping, guitar-heavy rendition of “Rock Me.” Styles wielded a mike stand like a trident, and, finally, the group looked fully awake and engaged, their tank-tops-and-tattoos aesthetic at last matching an aggressive sound.
That moment of “Did we just see the future?” maturity was fleeting, though. When they reemerged for an encore, the bros of One Direction brought a soccer ball with them— a football, if you speak British — and kicked it around during the peppier crowd-pleasers “Live While We’re Young” and “What Makes You Beautiful.”
By this point, they’d checked back out again; Styles glanced over his shoulder as he sang, watching as Payne, Tomlinson and Horan passed and juggled the ball behind him. Boys would be boys — for the moment, at least.