(Photo: Cheryl Evans, Arizona Republic)
by Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
GLENDALE, Ariz. - Justin Bieber had a mission with his new Believe tour, which kicked off Saturday at 18,000-seat Jobing Arena in this Phoenix suburb. It was to show that the 18-year-old was ready to eclipse the tween YouTube phenomenon and prove he was an entertainer of merit and endurance.
He indeed showed he was a man at the sold-out venue, but it had nothing to do with his new array of urban-tinged tunes or a stage spectacle that melded the visual gee-whiz of Hollywood with the crowd-pleasing power of Broadway. And it had everything to do with throwing up. In an impressive embodiment of show-must-go-on bravura, Bieber succumbed to an upset stomach not once but twice during his 21-song set, leaving fans wide-eyed and concerned, only to then charge back on stage.
The first instance came an hour into the 105-minute concert, midway through the Guys and Dolls-inspired presentation of Out of Town Girl, off Believe. Bieber wheeled around suddenly and doubled over, then scurried off stage. The dozen male and female dancers continued their routine, but when a DJ took over without the singer, a buzz rippled through the crowd.
"I'm sorry, I'm going to slow things down," Bieber said when he reappeared to the usual barrage of ear-piercing screams. He took to a platform on a mobile crane and soared above the audience, performing Fall on acoustic guitar. In contrast to the thundering strum und drang of much of the show, this piece was a gem that recalled the performer's roots busking for coins as a kid in Stratford, Ontario.
Bieber then powered through his Karate Kid theme song, Never Say Never. But a few thumps into Beauty and a Beat, his duet with Nicki Minaj (who provided her rap via a taped performance on a central video screen), the lanky singer vanished again, this time resulting in a complete halt to the show for a few minutes.
When he finally returned, Bieber had the poise and innate show-business smarts to come clean with the audience. "It's hard for me, you know, not feeling great and throwing up in front of a bunch of people," he said to laughs. "Will you love me even though I'm throwing up on stage?" Shrill shrieks. "OK, I wanted to give you my best show ever, so do you mind if I finish it?"
Finish it he did, completing the interrupted electronic dance-music romp with a virtual Minaj; dedicating One Less Lonely Girl to Avalanna Routh, the 6-year-old fan who succumbed to a rare cancer on Sept. 26 ("If you're listening, I love you," he said, looking skyward); tearing through As Long As You Love Me, Baby and the gospel-vibed Believe; and finally wrapping the show with his new album's first single, Boyfriend, complete with a few adult-oriented - and Michael Jackson-inspired - crotch grabs.
The show was not perfect. A planned magic act was scotched due to Bieber's onstage illness, and a few songs seemed to lack a segue, instead simply ending in silence as fans waited for the next number. All that can certainly be fixed in the course of 70-plus shows planned for the USA and Europe in the coming months.
Not that effort didn't go into rehearsal: Bieber insisted on three full concert run-throughs in the 36 hours before the show, his only real downtime amounting to riding a Segway around the arena and playing uber-competitive ping-pong with his posse (he's got a wicked backhand and doesn't like to lose). Such dedication to onstage perfection likely is what caused him to pay the physical price in concert.
Nonetheless, Bieber was the decided standout of this Scooter Braun-orchestrated soiree. Braun, who discovered Bieber and continues to intricately manage his rising career, also is behind the evening's two warm-up acts, Australian surfer heartthrob Cody Simpson and Call Me Maybe siren Carly Rae Jepsen. Each contributed a quick six-song set, with beach boy Simpson faring much better with the overwhelmingly young female crowd.
Bieber makes no secret of admiring and indeed hoping to succeed the late King of Pop, and Jackson's influences appeared everywhere from the music that played before Bieber took the stage (mostly Off the Wall-era hits) to the enigmatic talisman that appeared onscreen as the show began (an intricately carved key etched with the letter "B," for Believe).
The Jackson cues continued in numbers such as the show's opener, All Around the World (Bieber flies in on enormous wings made of drum cymbals and guitars), and in She Don't Like the Lights (which featured a filmed opening sequence showing Bieber duking it out with paparazzi, not unlike Jackson's shootouts in the music video for Smooth Criminal).
Bieber told USA TODAY in the weeks before the tour that he and his crew were watching endless Jackson concert videos and asking themselves "What would Michael do?" One has to think, taking in this giant opus of a show, that Bieber and his director, Jon Chu, were specifically watching This Is It, the footage from rehearsals for Jackson's ill-fated tour. The way Chu, whose background is in feature films, artfully wove video segments into Bieber's show likely speaks to a coming trend in concert entertainment, where the live performer on stage is but one element in a multimedia show.
Fans like Mackenzie Froehle, 17, were pleased by Bieber 2.0. "We're looking for something more extravagant and intense," she said. "He's not a little kid anymore, and the concerts shouldn't feel like Disney."
Believe isn't Disney, just as Bieber is no longer crooning for his mom Pattie's video camera. But it's hard to say what was more impressive, the ambitious multimedia presentation or the gutsy multidimensional performer who powered through the evening where lesser stars might have pulled up lame. What's truly believable is that Bieber has a big future beyond his improbably successful past.