The joy and pain of a '90s boy band concert at a mall in 2023

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The mall is a place where time stands still, where the whiff of floral fragrance mists at Bath & Body Works or the butter-soaked goodness at Auntie Anne's Pretzels can instantly take you back to a simpler time - perhaps as a teenager, when your biggest concern was whether to spend your allowance on butterfly hair clips from Claire's or a rhinestone tee from the Limited Too. And on Saturday afternoon at Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda, Md., excited fans yearning for that time travel showed up to be transported.

Thankfully, a coifed group of men were up to the task: the members of the Pop 2000 Tour, a traveling rotation of 1990s and early-2000s boy bands. Society has rarely let the boy bands rest. Get back to work, our nostalgia-obsessed world told the baggy-jean-wearing, platinum-blond-highlighted pop superstars who consumed our culture and sold tens of millions of albums two decades ago. For the most part, they have acquiesced to the demand over the past 10 years, with new albums, TV appearances, tell-all memoirs and podcasts, but especially reunion tours.

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This latest set of dates on the Pop 2000 Tour kicked off on the lower level of the mall outside Nordstrom, and everyone recognized the strange and full-circle nature of the situation.

"It's been a long time since we've performed in a mall, but this brings back a ton of nostalgia," 98 Degrees star Jeff Timmons, 49, told the crowd, many women in their 30s and 40s. Timmons co-hosted the hour-plus concert with Chris Kirkpatrick, 51, also the lone representative of his band, 'N Sync.

"Jeff Timmons, he's still got it," Kirkpatrick said admiringly after Timmons belted out solo renditions - with a vocal backing track - of two of his group's biggest smashes, "Because of You" and "I Do (Cherish You)." Gesturing to Timmons's muscles on display in a pink button-down, Kirkpatrick said: "This is what happens when you don't eat carbs." He then addressed himself, arm in a sling after shoulder surgery that he joked was due to old age: "This is what happens when you do eat carbs."

The audience screamed its approval throughout the show, anchored by the highly energetic O-Town, the Orlando-based group built on ABC's "Making the Band" fame factory in 2000. Erik-Michael Estrada, Dan Miller, Trevor Penick and Jacob Underwood, all in their early 40s, all in coordinated pink-accented outfits, led the crowd through singalongs of their hits "Liquid Dreams," "All Or Nothing" and "We Fit Together," as well as medleys of Boyz II Men, Shawn Mendes and, for some reason, multiple Chainsmokers songs.

"I think it's definitely surprising to see the fans react the way they do still, but I think it's far more surprising to see their children react the way they do now," Estrada said in an interview before the concert, which did have young kids of millennials bopping along. "It's incredible to see the power of music and see how that can translate over decades."

As the group doled out classic choreography - the box steps, the spinning, the fingers pointed to the sky - and joined with Kirkpatrick on 'N Sync's monster hits "Bye Bye Bye," "It's Gonna Be Me" and "Tearin' Up My Heart," fans' eyes glazed over as they transcended time and space, drifting off as the beats blasting out of the speakers reminded them of first CDs, first concerts, first crushes, school dances, cranking up the radio in their mom's car.

Kirkpatrick and Timmons know exactly what's going on when they see these expressions. In addition to all the financial incentives, it's why they still do this.

"We didn't know what to expect, because we hadn't been around, ... and we weren't cool for a while," Timmons said in an interview during a pre-show meet-and-greet at Lucky Strike bowling, talking about the time around 2013 when powers that be urged 98 Degrees (brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, along with Justin Jeffre) to reunite. "But the fans were there, and they were excited, and they were happy to see us. So that was our deciding factor."

"And I think as you get older, you appreciate it a lot more," he continued. "Not that you didn't appreciate the first time, but we're having more fun than ever. There's not as much pressure anymore, and we're having more fun with each other, too."

Kirkpatrick added that they have the best of both worlds: They can go home to their families and be regular people during the week, then hit the road in all its glory on the weekends. "You come out here and kind of to a certain extent relive - as my son calls them - the olden days," he said.

Plus, the circumstances of their lives have led to a link that can never be broken. Kirkpatrick dispels the notion that all boy bands are on one group chat, though there is an 'N Sync text chain with Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass, JC Chasez and Joey Fatone. (Kirkpatrick sent an April Fools' Day prank to them on Saturday; the only one who responded was Timberlake, who didn't fall for it.) But all of the guys remain members of the same brotherhood that became really, insanely, wildly famous, with all the excitement and absurdity and curses that can bring. Kirkpatrick said it's similar to a college where they all pledged different fraternities.

"Back in the day, we were competing for this, or doing this, and now we all just look back and go: 'How much fun was college? How much fun were those times?'" he said. "Because there are only four other guys on this planet that have gone through what I've gone through."

This bond is real, which only makes the story of the band LFO more devastating, a fact impossible to ignore during Saturday's show. Despite the joy in the crowd and onstage, there was also real pain. LFO, the trio that lit up the charts in 1999 with inescapable hits "Summer Girls" and "Girl on TV," has suffered more loss than most. Lead singer Rich Cronin died of leukemia at age 36 in 2010, and eight years later, bandmate Devin Lima died of cancer at age 41. Brian "Brizz" Gillis, a founding member who was replaced by Lima when he left the group in 1999, died last week at age 47. His cause of death has not been released.

"It's pretty surreal, you know? I've said it for a long time, but the LFO story is really a tragedy. A tragic story," Brad Fischetti, 47, the lone surviving member, said in an interview. He and Lima, his best friend, reunited in 2018 to pay homage to Cronin. After Lima's death, Fischetti joined the Pop 2000 Tour in memory of his friends and bandmates. "My mission with this stuff is to honor Rich, honor Devin ... and to bring back fans to a simpler time. A time before work, before kids, before marriage, before divorces, before money problems."

Indeed, fans at the mall said they were there for nostalgia's sake. (One said she just attended 90s Con in Connecticut last month, an event dedicated to the glory days of millennials that featured a boy band panel with Kirkpatrick, Fatone and Timmons.) But there has also always been a cultural fixation on the darker side of '90s and early-2000s celebrities who had struggles - often as teenagers - under the crush of fame. Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes, whose mental health issues and conservatorships have been publicly documented, are regulars in tabloid headlines. (Bynes canceled a scheduled appearance at 90s Con.) Aaron Carter, who once performed on the Pop 2000 Tour, died at age 34 last year after his battles with addiction.

Fischetti was noticeably quieter than his fellow performers on Saturday and was deeply saddened to hear about Gillis last week. They last spoke a few years ago, he said, and he wrote a long, emotional tribute on Instagram about how he was struggling to process the loss. As Fischetti works through his grief, he appreciates the fans, who still lose it when they hear the opening notes of the hits and sing along to every word.

"A lot of the shows, I end up in tears at the end, you know what I mean? It's almost like reliving the pain every show," Fischetti said. "And there's shows where I go: 'Okay, that's it. I can't do it again.' And then I go and do selfies in the merch line afterward, and a lot of the fans say these words that make me think: 'I can't. I can't stop.' They're so gracious to me."

The pain in Fischetti's voice was evident when he took the stage with O-Town to sing "Summer Girls," "Girl on TV," "West Side Story" and "Every Other Time." His eyes shielded under a black baseball hat, he told the audience about Cronin ("one of the greatest rappers who ever lived") and Lima ("the kind of voice that still brings me to my knees in tears") and said he wanted to carry on LFO's legacy. He wore a T-shirt with the bedazzled hashtags "#HonorRich" and "#HonorDevin" and had their shoes tied to the microphone stand, which he picked up and held toward the sky.

"I would be remiss not to mention another part of the LFO story, the first two chapters. ... Without his hard work and dedication, the LFO you've come to love would never have existed: Brian 'Brizz' Gillis," he said, and asked the crowd to have a "moment of praise" for the three men. "I want you to scream so loud that they feel your love in the heavens. ... If there's something these guys loved more than anything, it was to rock a show."

The audience screamed, and Fischetti looked emotional - though he did crack a smile whenever the crowd yelled LFO's most famous lyrics back to him during "Summer Girls": "I like girls that wear Abercrombie & Fitch!" The catharsis on all levels was clear, the thrill of reliving the sweetness of the past, even with the existential sadness of knowing that it could someday all disappear.


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Video: Members of the boy band O-Town and Chris Kirkpatrick of 'N Sync performed together at Westfield Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Md., on April 1.(REF:yahres/The Washington Post)

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