I first photographed Shawn Mendes in San Antonio back in 2014. It was the first night of his very first tour. He was the opening act on a bill headlined by Austin Mahone, the Vamps and Fifth Harmony. It was by far the loudest concert I have ever witnessed. I’m not referring to the music emanating from the stage. No. My ears hurt from the high-pitched screaming of over 11,000 young girls.
So, with that in mind, I knew that to experience Mendes’ set at ACL Fest properly I needed to experience it from the front lines. That’s right. This 57-year old man worked his way down towards the front of the Honda stage and in the middle of the maddening crowd.
The screaming commenced the moment he stepped in front of the mic. I was immediately knocked about by pogoing fans, shrieking and holding their cell phones high above their heads. I saw Mendes begin singing the lyrics to “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” but I did not hear him. The audience around me was singing every word at the top of their lungs.
What was different this time was that the audience was not all young girls. The average age was older, yes, but it was also much broader – from teens to moms and beyond. But the surprising thing to me was that there were also quite a few men in the crowd. And they were singing just as loud and dancing just as freely. This was fun. I have never experienced such raw fandom in the wild like this!
Shawn Mendes seems a bit different to me than your average teen idol. Sure, he is tall and good looking. He seems charming and truly thankful for the space he now occupies in the hearts of his fans. And it’s obvious the kid can sing. But he seems to have something else. He has a charisma and an honesty that allows him to straddle the line between pop-flavor-of-the-moment and musician. He remains hip and continues to expand his audience with each release. He can even count UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger and his crew as fans (They stepped out onstage halfway through the set, hook’em horns held high).
Mendes controlled the stage, transitioning from innocence to sexiness, from anthems to crooners. He worked his magic with sly winks and a healthy swagger and yet, he is unthreatening and refreshingly real. He sings like he means every word.
Thinking back to that first show in San Antonio, I recall a young, slightly nervous kid standing center stage with only an acoustic guitar. He has since released three albums, headlined three world tours, and has been graced with more than a few awards. And now he is playing a coveted evening spot on ACL’s second stage. Not bad for four years.