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Review: Jonas Brothers and Jordin Sparks at the Garden

 

25 MORE PHOTOS: Jonas Brothers and Jordin Sparks at Boston Garden

It might be much more romantic if it were impossible for pop stars to be manufactured, if there were not a formula that could be plotted out, in advance, for turning three teenaged brothers with a failed major-label debut into one of the biggest pop groups on the planet. That is not the world we live in. I've got a nine-year-old daughter, so I have to listen to this stuff. But I also appreciate the Jonas Brothers as the best available evidence that the traditional major labels are complete morons with no idea how to market music. Disney, on the other hand, has this market down to a science, and has been perfecting that science for years. The Jonas Brothers get away with things that no mere major-label superstar could dream of getting away with: for instance, they stuck an ad for an asprin manufacturer into the set. Not product placement, mind you. The band left the stage momentarily, a commercial came on the video monitors touting the manufacturer's contributions to Nick Jonas's favorite (and worthy) cause, and then the band came back on. The Jonas Brothers put on a three-hour concert that is programmed like a cable television network. There were nearly a dozen other sponsors whose commercials ran before the band took the stage, and nearly every single one of them featured a taped endorsement by the band. Including a series of spots in which Nick, Joe, and Kevin cavorted backstage with that creepy Burger King statue.

It's already a well-established fact that children love the Jonas Brothers. But there is a slightly hysteric rush to figure out what else these children want - or, more to the point, a hysteric rush to make sure that whatever you're selling is so closely aligned with the Jonases that the kids will have to like it too. I happened to pass through North Station, below the Garden, about an hour before doors opened. (I hear the stock market is not a good bet these days, but if you can find a company that manufactures rainbow kneesocks? Invest heavily.) In the corridor outside the entrance to the Garden, I heard a commotion. Upon further investigation, I found a tall man shouting into a bullhorn next to three shorter, younger men, all of them surrounded by dozens of camera-weilding teenage girls, many of them wearing rainbow kneesocks. This, it turned out, was the Honor Society - the opening band. They wore forced smiles and a glazed, slightly embarrassed expression. To an outsider not familiar with major-label marketing techniques, it might have looked a little like a hostage crisis. For the next hour, the man with the bullhorn marched the boys from one end of the corridor to the other - when they reached one end, he would shout something into the bullhorn and wave a stack of tickets to the band's "pre-show party" the next day, then a bunch of girls would scream and others would come running. Cameras flashed. Ten minutes later the entire drill would be repeated.

The Jonas Brothers concert itself was an exercise in giving the people what they've paid for. Unlike other pop superstar acts, they have no stripper-babe dancers, and their backup singers/violinists look scrupulously frumpy. The Broze performed on a carousel - emblematic of the soccer generation, where everybody  gets a turn at being in front - and the stage helpfully doubled as a trampoline and, briefly, as a shower. The Jonases are on the cusp of growing up - one can almost see an egg timer draining over engaged older brah Kevin Jonas's head, counting down the seconds until it becomes an undeniable fact that one of these guys has had sex - but they still perform all their old hits. So what you end up with is three distinct groups. There's the bratty movie-soundtrack tween-punk group that's made "Year 3000" (their first Disney single) and "Poison Ivy" (from their new Lines, Vines, and Trying Times) -- basically a Gap Kids version of Blink-182. With the backing of a powerhouse showband, they can transform their Kidz Bop-ish radio hits into E-Street-Band-sized stadium rock. And then there are awkward flashes of attempted poignance, such as when Nick Jonas comes out to do a solo-piano number and took a shot at a blue-collar monologue, in which he casts his battle with diabetes as some kind of Springsteen-ish, Darkness on the Edge of Town mythic existentialism. I'm probably not doing a good job of conveying how exquisitely absurd a moment it was.

At this point I feel compelled to mention that my nine-year-old loved the shit out of this show, as did the other 16 thousand non-parental-units in attendance. You can say things like, "The loudest fucking thing I've ever heard," but until you're in a stadium and you hear the loudest thing you've ever heard - and then somehow the volume level spikes again - you really can't get your head around it.

For all that, the highlight of the entire gig belonged to Jordin Sparks, who spent most of her opening set previewing album cuts from her forthcoming solo record. Included: a song called "S.O.S." that borrows the chorus from Shannon's '80s freestyle chestnut "Let the Music Play." This is not to be confused with Rihanna's "S.O.S.," which borrowed liberally from Soft Cell's "Tainted Love"; or the Jonas Brothers' "S.O.S.," which doesn't sample anything specifically but was a big Disney hit and sounds an awful lot like the Knack's "My Sharona."

Sparks closed with her two lesser hits - "Tattoo," and a version of "No Air" from which any trace of Chris Brown has been assiduously removed (she's now singing both halves of the verses). The omission of her current chart-topping single should've been a dead giveaway, but I was still caught off-guard when she re-emerged, three-quarters of the way through the Jonas Brothers' set, to perform a showstopping, all-hands-on-deck version of "Battlefield." And as she belted it, it became instantly clear why the Jonas Brothers have worked it into their show: if they didn't, the song would upstage them every night. And yet there's something humbling about watching Team Jonas step back from the spotlight into a support role. As musicians, they're better than Sparks's touring backing band. Nick's a pretty good drummer, and the combined chorus of about a dozen raises the chorus from epic to something approaching transcendent. "Battlefield"'s author, Ryan "One Republic" Tedder, must love this shit out of this: he may be ripping off the Fray ripping off Coldplay ripping off everyone else, but none of those bands has a singer as good as Sparks or the money to field a full platoon each night in support of a mere pop single.

The only lingering disappointment for me was that they didn't play my favorite Jonas Brothers song, "One Man Show," which I like to imagine is Nick Jonas's theme song: "I'm a one man show/I don't need no one/ I'll be fine alone." (For anyone versed in decade-old Swedish punk, it sounds surprisingly like a third-album Hellacopters song.) It's sung to a girl, but it's likely only a matter of time until Nick's singing it to his brothers. As the group's most accomplished musician, songwriter, and singer (he took turns on guitar, drums, and piano), he's the one destined for the Justin Timberlake treatment. Joe Jonas is increasingly playing the hypeman role, and seems destined to become the Tito Jackson of the group. Kevin's their protector, and they won't need one for much longer. Maybe Jordin needs a new guitar player?

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