You could sense the anticipation before setting foot in the venue. The closed lots were packed full of cars as fans anxiously scanned side streets for any available spaces. The frantic young people clutched phones and portable chargers.
Niall Horan’s sold-out Flicker Sessions tour stop Friday night at the South Side Ballroom was not radically different from the Irish musician’s last trip through town not quite two years ago. This time, he'll be back soon; he's on the bill for the Jingle Ball on Nov. 28 at the American Airlines Center. He'll also headline Starplex Pavilion on July 20.
With One Direction on what appears to be a semipermanent hiatus, each member has turned his attention to a burgeoning solo career. For Horan, as well as his former bandmates, Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson, this shift has amounted to a lateral move. The five former 1D members are meeting with formidable success. Styles will headline the American Airlines Center next summer, and Horan, making his solo Dallas debut Friday, saw his first solo record debut atop the Billboard charts last month.
This gave Friday’s jam-packed performance a celebratory air, something the 24-year-old Horan, clad in an Eagles T-shirt, noted early in his 70-minute set. "These shows have become — since you guys got my album to No. 1 in the States — these have become thank-you shows,” he said.
The overwhelmingly female audience sang along to every tune on the set list (Horan ceded the vocals to the room completely to end a stripped-down take on One Direction’s “Fool’s Gold”) and kept up a torrent of adoring howls that often felt as if they were going to buckle the walls.
The songs were more of a slow burn as Horan worked through every cut on Flicker (including the three deluxe-edition tracks). Horan favors country and folk flourishes, giving his otherwise homogenous, mid-tempo pop compositions an intriguing edge.
As evidenced by “Seeing Blind” (which is, on record, a feisty duet with Grammy-winning Arlington native Maren Morris), “You and Me” or “Fire Away,” Horan is creating an interesting lane for himself, one not populated with too many refugees from the world of boy-band pop. (A cynic might suggest such a move also illustrates the vanishingly thin line between pop and country music.)
It’s a savvy creative choice, showcasing Horan’s clear, light tenor voice, which stands firmly on its own and can adapt to whatever genres the singer-songwriter wants to explore. No one will mistake Horan’s work for that of his fellow countrymen Glen Hansard and Van Morrison, but that tradition of iconoclastic troubadours isn’t what Horan’s current audience is after anyway.
Horan’s stylistic flexibility was also on display during the smash-hit single “This Town,” which evokes a decaffeinated Ed Sheeran, or the sultry “Slow Hands,” the best lite-R&B jam Nick Jonas never recorded. But, as engaged and engaging as Horan was throughout the swiftly paced evening, he was bedeviled by the audience’s insistence on watching much of the show from behind smartphones.
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“One more emotional one, then I don’t want to see any more phones,” Horan admonished at one point. “I want to see hands and dancing.”
The crowd assented to watching with nothing but its eyes just once — during a delicate performance of Flicker’s title track — but the familiar glow of screens proliferated once more as soon as the final notes faded. The polite pleas to put away phones persisted into the encore: During “Slow Hands,” Horan again asked the crowd to be in the moment, and he went so far as to make a joking-maybe-not-joking remark about it in a post-show tweet.
Regardless, it was clear Horan was connecting with the room full of rabid fans despite the devices separating them from one another.
“This record means quite a lot to me … people have really taken it under their wing and listened to it,” Horan told the audience Friday. “There’s no better feeling than hearing people are really getting into it.”