JLS – review

Wembley Arena, London; and touring

As the boyband-loaded silver Mercedes convertible dangles precariously above Wembley's crowd, consensus below is divided. There are the parents who mutter "health and safety", shielding their tweens from its chassis, and those whose squeals surge accordingly as Aston's gaze (possibly) meets theirs. "Down here," one girl screams, decked out in her JLS-emblazoned hoody, sucking a ream of candyfloss. "Marvin I love you," cries another, tossing her glow stick at the bonnet. It's uncomfortable yet beguiling to watch, a bit like an attempted club snog minus the knockback. Cynicism suspended, I question any woman who leaves without a sliver of unrequited lust for Britain's foremost all-black boyband.

In ascending order of fitness, JLS are: Oritsé, JB, Marvin and Aston. Or maybe Aston then Marvin. Aston does the back flips, Marvin does the brooding, and the other two smile, sing and wear silly hats. Remarkably, this is their first headlining arena tour since they emerged on series five of the X Factor, slap bang at a point when boybands had reached saturation point. Stool-tours have since become the stuff of parodies, disbanded groups are re-grouping and one (Backstreet Boys) has joined forces with one long-gone (New Kids on the Block) to create a middle-aged acronymical army (BSBNKOTB) of smulch. Boy bands are considered old hat. Even a decent one like JLS were unlikely to win over Simon Cowell.

Coming second to Alexandra Burke in 2008, as is tradition JLS left the show unsigned before being snapped up by Epic then Jive. Two years on, it's all change. JLS have a clutch of urban music awards, two decent albums co-written, in part, by them, and several million sales. Demonstrating a rare volte face, Cowell subsequently poured an unprecedented amount of emotion into One Direction, the "cute" but unremarkable boyband he mentored this year. Yet despite huge support, they only came third. It's conceivable they were too young, demonstrated by their lack of toplessness on TV: you're not allowed to fancy teenage boys.

JLS, all in their early twenties, have no problem with top-removal. They open with two tracks from their near-proficient second album, "Outta This World" and "That's My Girl", both barely audible over the screams. The crowd settles, allowing the quartet, donning rhinestone-embellished black tie, to slip into an accomplished dance routine for "Eyes Wide Shut", complete with stage invasion from X Factor-phile Tinie Tempah. He pops on stage for some high fives, grins and ad-libbed rap, leaning nonchalantly at the back before disappearing.

The first costume change sees JLS emerge as vampires. This gets an ear-piercing validation and they launch into the unknockable "Beat Again", surely the "Hey Ya" of the Twitter generation. Comparing the indignity of being dumped to a cardiac arrest, this song sat triumphantly atop their eponymous first album, an otherwise anaemic record drowned by over-production. Without the auto-tune, though, it's perfectly realised.

"Work" is improved by its mashing with Rihanna's "Rude Boy", allowing them to segue into an ace "Umbrella" (cue actual JLS umbrellas being opened by the crowd.) A belting "Wem-ber-ley we love you, you're all fit and sexy" from JB, and there they go again, diving behind the curtain and reappearing in those now hateful/infamous deep V tees: T-shirts slashed naval-deep, allowing the wearer's ideally hairless saucer-shaped pecs to spill out.

It's warming (read: exhausting) to witness a proper pop spectacle, reasonably priced, all high-camp theatrics and glitz. The fan forums promised a circus theme but tonight, aside from the car, we get a mix of pyrotechnics, smoke, glittery explosions and steel walkways. However, it's their on-stage routines which demonstrate their ability. X Factor contestants can, of course, sing. And those that can dance, like JLS, dance well. Aston flips around on his wrists like a hyperactive child and instigates their vaguely cute, faux-homoerotic banter which results in a scramble to remove each other's clothing.

There are some lows. Amid staging better suited to the set of the film Tron, a medley of Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync songs dumbfounds the younger fans and reveals a little too much about the lack of boyband progress. Pointless, really, the medley's sole use is to please their shared record label, Jive. Equally weak is a cover of Justin Bieber's "Somebody to Love" which seems highly unnecessary. However its simplicity allows the four of them to clamber up the steel walkway without duress. Plus it sounds a lot better coming from them. Meandering along at eye-level on the walkway, this sort of staging comes into its own. All the pointing, waving, near-hand grasping and eye-contact eclipses the song itself. As a precursor to "I Know What She Like", singleton Aston announces to us that he knows what women want: "DVD nights". Apparently.

Ninety minutes in the company of this group raises some questions: How young is too young to love a boyband; how much man-cleavage is too much, and why, in God's name, did Simon Cowell not sign them? JLS are very good, very popular and refreshingly grateful to the fans who, through the medium of televoting, made them. Sure they seem to overlook the fact that much of their audience is underage by declaring them "the sexiest girls we've seen on tour", but it's odd that for the first time, Cowell signed the top four X Factor acts this year, One Direction included. Does he regret not signing JLS? Wembley's sea of merch-wielding teens suggests he must be kicking himself.


Morwenna Ferrier

The GuardianTramp

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