Thirst has a sound. It’s high-pitched and keening, like a boiling tea kettle. A piercing, sharp sound, begging you to silence it. Get enough young girls in a building to watch their favorite heartthrob croon for them and you’ll hear exactly the sound I’m talking about. Picture the Beatles playing for 50,000 tea kettles all going off at once. That’s what Shea Stadium must have sounded like.
Shawn Mendes will never be mistaken for John, Paul, George or Ringo. But one thing he shares with the Fab Four is his uncanny ability to make middle school to high school age girls completely lose their minds. Watching him perform in front of a thirsty, adoring crowd at Gila River Arena last night was like watching Orpheus singing for the Maenads. I could picture Mendes being literally torn to shreds by his fans if he got too close to their outstretched hands.
The packed-to-the-gills arena was buzzing with enthusiasm before he took to the stage. Opener Alessia Cara played to a crowd that was eager to have a good time, and they sang along to hits like “Scars to Your Beautiful” and “Sway” the way most of us sing along to the radio in our cars: Loud, unguarded, and joyous. Cara had an appealingly down-to-earth look and demeanor onstage. She looked like she could just as easily be in the crowd watching the show as she is being The Show.
But as well-received as Cara’s set was, the mostly-female crowd was here to see one person and one person only: Shawn “Are You Sure He’s Not A Secret Jonas Brother?” Mendes. And as soon as he appeared onstage, dressed in a gun-show-friendly sleeveless white shirt, the tea kettling began: A swell of screaming that persisted throughout the entire show. Even in the quietest moments of his performances, screams rang out in some corner of the arena.
There weren’t a lot of frills to Mendes’ set (with the exception of a huge light-up rose sculpture that shifted from rose to pink to white and gold colors throughout the night). It was mostly just him and his band playing beneath a porthole-shaped projector screen that occasionally played trippy images of swirling galaxies or lovely sunsets. But mostly the screen just projected what people really wanted to see: Shawn striking poses with his guitar, Shawn tousling his black hair, Shawn subtly flexing his arms in a way that miraculously doesn’t seem smarmy. If there’s an academy for boy-band voguing, Shawn Mendes must have been the valedictorian: Dude has his Girl-I-Want-You-Girl body language down to an exact science.
Credit where credit is due: Mendes has the goods as a live musician. He’s a capable guitarist and pianist, and as a vocalist his singing is clear, articulate, and even occasionally hits some impressive Jeff Buckley-esque swoons. And he does have hits for days, which he unleashed on the crowd over the course of his hour-plus set: “Lost In Japan,” “Stitches,” “Never Be Alone,” “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back”… He even threw in a couple of covers in Coldplay’s “Fix You” and a bit of Whitney’s immortal “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”).
Mendes kept his stage banter to a minimum, though he got off a few choice quotables (like when he pulled the classic touring artist gambit of talking about the weather: “You are superhuman beings for being able to withstand the heat outside”). Or when he introduced “Fallin’ All In You” to all the couples on dates in the audience with “This is the song where you have to make the move.”
It was an entertaining, slickly produced set of music (given a little bit of grit and oomph by actually having a live band onstage to jam the songs out). It’s also the kind of set where, frankly, I can feel myself hitting a wall as a music writer that’s hard to vault over. This music isn’t for me. I’m a 37-year old dude in the crowd in a Deafheaven shirt: Whatever opinion I could possibly have about Shawn Mendes is meaningless to that seething mass of screamers who were having the absolute time of their lives.
All around me, girls wept and howled for Mendes, begged him to take his shirt off, screamed “I LOVE YOU” with all the desperation of a shipwreck victim trying to call for help, even murmured “Yes” in response to him singing “Can I kiss you” as though he were individually asking each one of them for their permission. They jumped and danced to his music with such force that I could actually feel the bleacher floor beneath us wobble and shake.
The truth is, I’ll never understand his music or FEEL IT in the way they do. To me, it’s just something pleasant to listen to on the radio and forget about after the fact: A welcome I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Ed-Sheeran substitution. For the thirsty girls and ladies at Gila River, every note he sang and every pose he struck that night was life-saving water. What good are words to a parched throat?
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