Back in 2016, Justin Bieber, playing Cain, to Shawn Mendes’ Abel, performed his last big New York gig at Prudential Center (here), an indolent show bolstered by backing tracks and staged pieces that Justin seemed absolutely livid to be involved in, he would cancel the remaining tour soon after. Saturday night at Barclay Center, Shawn Mendes, with the # 1 single in the UK, and Top Three in the States, “Senorita,” performed an energetic, passionate rock pop set to adoring girl fans who gave him one long embrace. If Shawn’s act is an act, which, of course, it is, than it is an act of disarming simplicity in the face of complex touring logistics. As straightforward an evening of pop rock plus dance vibes supremacy as you can ever hope. Shawn is in the middle of his third world tour since 2016, and has been on the road since April. If it has worn the 21 year old Canadian superstar down, the wear and tear certainly isn’t visible to the naked eye, in wife beater and tousled rockabilly pompadour, the man gave everything every moment.
The first time I saw Shawn was on the small stage at Jingle Ball in 2015, and I wrote (here): “The little girls understand and gave him the loudest screams of the night. I think he would be a lot better if he had any really good songs. Ed Sheeran he ain’t. Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello reprised her duet on “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. If only he had more “Life Of The Party”s“. Oddly, that is , more or less, how I feel in 2019.
The evening began with a bang on time 730pm with another singer-songwriter from Canada, Alessia Cara’s 40 minutes hits and new songs, sung so well and earnestly that she appeared to run out of breath, something you never hear nowadays. The Arena was packed for Alessia’s set and she treated them as though they were her own, with just the slightest whiff of arrogance, not entirely deservedly since her last five singles tanked.
There are many things to admire about Shawn, but firstly he shows up on time. If you have a 730 start on the ticket you sold, and an opening act, and you get on stage at 835pm, you are making many, many friends. And a child shall lead em, right? with three albums to pick and choose from, we got eleven off his eponymous 2018 album, six from Illuminate, and five from Handwritten, all three albums went to # 1 in the charts, also a bizarrely truncated “Senorita” and a show stopping “If I Can’t Have You”. Shawn performs pop Junior High poetic songs (compare his “Lost In Japan” to James Blakes’ similarly concepted “I’ll Come Too”). The songs are sometime strong, and sometimes a blur, but never poetically elegant, he has the language skills of an eighth grader. All these songs of romantic fealty are mired in cliche, fifty-four years after “Love Minus Zero: No Limit,” the entire skill set of great lyrics seem to be withering before our eyes. Song after song are written to help girls daydream about boys who don’t much exist; Shawn rates adoration for the woman of the moment as a primary attribute for romantic love, and it adds up to a standard young girls will be hard pressed to find boys who can match it.
Opening with “Lost In Japan,” Mendes battered his acoustic guitar with abandonment for the entire evening, culminating in a brutal strumalong to “Youth”. The realness of the song, of the entire evening, placed Shawn not merely on a trajectory from his Ed Sheeran/Justin Bieber social media solo acoustic roots, but also a growth as steady as it has been strong, with one hit over the other, continuing with the only Shawn song I adore, “If I Can’t Have You”. Jumping to piano for the slow songs, and jumping to the edge of the arena and a smaller stage featuring a gorgeous giant rose (apparently an old symbol of his) for an eight song run there -no “acoustic set” excuse here, he did it so other girls got a peek at his biceps. A fine “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” lead to a handful of piano songs and a handful of rock guitar songs with, my oh my, an electric guitar, in “Ruin” Shawn proved he has some skills as a musician, just like his hero John Mayer.
Around about now it got a little boring, though he managed to keep the audience, being filmed for an upcoming documentary, who didn’t seem to think so. The connection between audience and musician isn’t the deep jump of Taylor Swift (who he supported in 2015) but it feels very real, and Shawn sounds unlike other boy popstars, he doesn’t navigate hip hop at all. His songwriting team includes Teggy Geiger and Scott Harris, people who work that EDM to pop and back vibe for all they’re worth. Like Taylor (though: I was listening to Katy Perry’s “Small Talk” and could’ve sworn it was off Taylor’s Lover) he uses pop songwriters to work in arrangements while the music belongs to him. “Life Of The Party,” his first single, remains a masterpiece, so is “Ruin,” on Friday night he sang “Fallin All In You” (co-written with Ed Sheeran) to Camila Cabello in the audience (they are performing at the VMAs on Monday, for which I can’t get a ticket for love or money), Saturday he took it as an opportunity to advocate date rape (I paraphrase here). The set got a little samey and the decision to truncate his biggest song, “Senorita,” was a bad one, he should dump “Fix It” and end the evening with “Senorita” followed by “In My Blood”.
But the anti-Justin is a good guy, Justin was raised by his Mom on the wrong side of town and by the time he reached seventeen had let it all go to his head and drive him crazy. Half Portuguese, half English, Shawn was raised in a religious household, and the difference becomes clearer as Shawn suffers from anxiety attacks while Justin melts down with his hip hop friends before joining the Hillsong community. Justin is a better singer, Shawn has reality on his side. And Shawn is not phoning in anything as he travels the world with his four piece band and his LCD screens and brings love and romance to deserving teenage girls.
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