Birthday bash overtakes One Direction's Ford Field concert

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Detroit — Boy bands aren’t built to last. They burn hot and flame out and make room for the next one to come along, and there’s always another one coming along.

One Direction has been going strong for five years, and the inevitable growing pains showed at Ford Field on Saturday. The one-time fivesome was down a member, following the March departure of Zayn Malik. There were unfilled seats in the stadium, with several rows of empty chairs in the back corners of Ford Field, a far cry from last year when the boys sold out two nights at the Detroit Lions’ home. And the concert came several days after word leaked from One Direction’s camp that the group will be taking a much needed break come early 2016.

These sorts of things are destined to happen in the life of a boy band. But if One Direction are lame ducks – the boy band equivalent of a politician on their way out with nothing left to fight for – they didn’t act like it on Saturday, and neither did their fans. After all, there was a birthday to celebrate, which in the wild world of 1D fandom is practically a holiday.

Saturday was group member Liam Payne’s 22nd birthday, and the night became a tribute to “Payner,” as his bandmates call him. Ford Field was filled with fan-made signs acknowledging his birthday – 1D crowds rival WWE audiences when it comes to holding up signs – and the big day was formally acknowledged early in the show. “It’s Liam’s birthday!” Harry Styles announced two songs into the night, telling the crowd something they’ve known (and have been looking forward to) since the concert was announced late last year.

Payne — a graduate of the Kid Rock school of mic-flipping — thanked the crowd for the signs and the birthday love and the party continued all night long. Fans sang “Happy Birthday” to him midway through the show, and Louis Tomlinson spent the final two songs of the evening mercilessly attacking him with a water gun until he looked like he just emerged from a swimming pool. (The 1D dudes have a tendency to goof around on stage so it’s possible this was just business as usual, but the sheer amount of waterplay suggested it was a case of birthday razzing.)

One Direction members from left: Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Niall Horan perform at Ford Field in downtown Detroit on Saturday.

Elsewhere the two-hour, 25-song concert followed the pattern of a typical 1D show, with the guys – Payne, Styles, Tomlinson and guitar-toting Irishman Niall Horan – covering the massive stage while constantly interacting with fans and keeping a loose vibe alive on stage. The set-up was similar to last year’s pair of Ford Field blowouts, with a wall of gigantic video screens covering the back of the stage and a long runway stretching a large portion of the field – well past the 50-yard line and probably out to the 20 – leading out to a B-stage where the guys spent a significant chunk of the show.

Styles, whose hair now falls past shoulder-length, is the group’s most physically emotive performer, and he’s constantly feeling the songs, throwing his body into his words, straining his face, fiddling with his in-ear monitors and doing everything he can to sell the performance to the back row of the building. He’s also the most charismatic of the bunch, and the moments where he engaged members of the crowd in light banter showed how natural he is with a microphone.

The crowd — mostly early-to-mid teens and roughly 90 percent female — reacted to nearly everything said or done on stage with piercing screams, as is customary not only for One Direction but boy bands in general. They were also not shy about tossing teddy bears, headwear and clothing items at and in the direction of the stage, and some fans managed to nail the guys with blasts of silly string at several points in the show. (To their credit, it takes a lot to shake the members of the group, though Styles did go wide-eyed late in the show when a rather large stuffed bear came flying his way.)

Yet some of the spontaneity and the pure fun of past 1D performances was missing, replaced by routine announcements that the crowd was definitely the loudest on the tour so far, etc. And since the guys don't have any choreography to fall back upon — that's never been their thing — it's up to them to carry the show in other ways, and Saturday's show seemed to move a bit slower than usual, with some of the playful spark that was a hallmark of earlier performances missing. That upcoming break the group is taking is not only well-deserved, but necessary.

The set list was strong, with selections from all four of the group’s albums mixed in, with many of the highlights – including opener “Clouds,” “Steal My Girl,” “Night Changes” “No Control” and “Girl Almighty” – coming from last year’s stadium rock-influenced “Four.” “Drag Me Down,” from the group’s upcoming fifth album, came late in the set and was well-received, while hits like “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Little Things” felt like time-honored classics, golden oldies from way back during President Obama's first term of office.

But in the life of a boy band, a few years is an eternity; fans who were freshmen in high school when the group's first album was released are now starting college. There is life beyond a boy band's first round of fame, just ask New Kids on the Block or Backstreet Boys, who still play to dedicated crowds (and even joined forces several years ago).

As One Direction enters the next phase of its career, the members have plenty of models to look to for examples of how to move forward. The screams may die down, but they'll never die off.