Review: One Direction spontaneous, charismatic in Detroit stop of U.S. tour

Adam Graham

One Direction’s Liam Payne had a “whoa” moment on stage Saturday night at Ford Field, during the first of the group’s two sold-out concerts at the Detroit Lions’ home.

“We’re in the middle of America playing massive stadiums. What is that all about? What is that?” Payne said near the end of the show, as 49,000 fans cheered back at him.

What exactly is that all about? In four short years, the English-Irish fivesome has climbed the ladder to international superstardom, and the group is now doing multiple stadium engagements in cities across America. Aside from Eminem and Rihanna, no other touring acts are doing multiple stadium nights this summer, and the Em/ Rihanna tour is only playing three cities, so it’s not a fair comparison.

Payne’s a-ha moment is indicative of what makes One Direction so popular. There’s an a sincerity and an aw-shucks honesty about the group that endears them to fans. They don’t play the typical boy-band games, and they have an aversion to choreography and canned performances that borders on the compulsive. During their concert last summer at the Palace of Auburn Hills, I found their approach off-putting, but I now understand that is the key to their charm. In their own way, they keep it real.

And they kept it real on Saturday, with a 24-song, 105-minute show that was low on staged bits and high on spontaneity and charisma.

Payne, Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Zayne Malik and Louis Tomlinson worked the stage and the long catwalk down the center of the stadium throughout the show, constantly interacting with both the audience and each other. There was plenty of goofing around: During “What Makes You Beautiful,” Payne stole Tomlinson’s microphone from his hand and ran away with it, leaving Tomlinson to share a microphone with his group mates. These types of shenanigans were typical, as the guys seem to understand they’re putting on a pop show, not saving the universe, and if they’re not having fun no one else is going to either.

The group’s fans bring their own offbeat element to the mix, with signs that quote “Step Brothers,” print outs of the group members’ tweets and empty buckets of chicken with “1D” written on them. (The chicken reference was lost on me.) Theirs is a highly engaged fanbase, and the same way the group avoids typical boy band behavior, their fans avoid typical boy band fan behavior. Well, aside from all the screaming, that is.

Styles is the superstar of the group and gets more cheers than anyone else (Horan, who schlepped his guitar around most of the show and was the only member to play an instrument all night, was second), and he had a few choice moments on Saturday. He singled out one audience member who was trying to get his attention with something she was holding and asked her “what is that?” and as she was attempting to explain it he told her, “it doesn’t matter.” He then picked up a bag of cotton candy that someone in the audience tossed at him and he looked at it puzzled and gave a droll “wow,” then serenaded a fan with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” “There are two main reasons why we love Detroit: The first is Eminem, and the second is you,” he told the audience. Late in the show, during “Little White Lies,” he wiped the sweat from his face with a towel, identified a fan in the audience, kissed the towel and tossed it to her. It was a simple gesture, but the personal touch he gave it made all the difference.

The show’s setlist covered the group’s three albums and focused on last year’s “Midnight Memories,” with that album’s “Through the Dark” providing one of the night’s early highlights. Fireworks accompanied several songs, including opener “Midnight Memories,” “Alive” and the show closer “Best Song Ever.” Earlier, prior to “Little White Lies,” Payne told the crowd, “this isn’t the last song, there’s one after this” – one more small example of the group breaking down the barriers of typical concert behavior and being real with fans.

In last year’s documentary “One Direction: This Is Us,” the group members showed they had an understanding that the journey they’re on won’t last forever, and they seemed okay with that. If this is the peak of One Direction – it’s tough to top two sold-out stadium shows, no matter who you are – then the group has more than made its mark. What exactly is this all about? It’s about fun, and One Direction understands that as much as anybody.

Australian foursome 5 Seconds of Summer opened the show with an energetic blast of pop-rock, punctuated by big sing-along choruses and an eagerness to please. The group’s 11-song, 45-minute set included covers of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” and the Romantics’ “What I Like About You,” as well as a short snippet of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” The group released its debut album earlier this summer and isn’t ready for the stadium circuit quite yet, but with no shortage of big hooks to pull from, the band is on the right track.