American Airlines Center (Dallas, TX)
– Words by David Huff/ Photos by James Villa –
I will thoroughly admit that the only musical highlight I ever appreciated involving Justin Timberlake didn’t involve his contributions to N*Sync, or his on again off again solo career the past ten years. Nope, the moment I will always remember was his appearance at the 2004 Super Bowl, where he performed a halftime song with Janet Jackson that caught my eye – and then some. With that moment in time permanently etched in my brain, I’ll freely admit that outside of the ‘wardrobe malfunction’, I was totally naïve to the music world created by the initials, J.T.
Frankly, I’m glad I was. What better way to evaluate an artist than to go blindly into a sold-out venue to find yourself in the midst of a giant party. This festive atmosphere was created in part by an over exuberant deejay named FreeStyle (Steve Johnson) who took tweets from people inside the American Airlines Center and acknowledged their presence over the P.A. system. From his makeshift perch in the back of the arena floor, he continuously did ‘shout outs’ to people located in various lower and upper level areas of the arena, in particular the nosebleed seats. I doubt I’ll get the words “Section 318” out of my mind any time soon.
The floor setup was something I’ve never seen before. The massive stage structure was quite impressive with an extensive space age white honeycomb backdrop running from the floor up to the undercarriage of the tresses overhead. It was understandable why the first three dates of this tour were postponed while the kinks were worked out of this mammoth one-of-a-kind stage production. The back of the floor is where the surprise came in. It had actually been transformed into a nightclub setting with tables and a large flowing full service bar-bar. The privilege to enter this exclusive VIP club – and get generous samplings of Timberlake’s signature 901 Tequila – was just $1995 per person (swag bag included). It was jam-packed with eager patrons drinking the night away.
Over the past several years, Timberlake has limited his stage exposure of this variety to concentrate on another platform – acting. Since his last world tour in 2007, the former child star has been featured in six movies and voiced two animation releases. When he finally decided it was time to return to the genre that started it all for him – music – he didn’t come back with a whimper, but a thunderous bang. The 20/20 Experience – a double album with individual discs released six months apart – contained an incredible 70 and 75 minutes of music respectively. Tonight, 17 of the 31 songs performed for this joyous crowd were culled from these companion pieces.
This tour that will last almost a year, is a reintroduction to the masses of the now stylish and clearly mature Justin Timberlake. Whatever was left of the former teen idol was mirrored only in his silhouette that was reflected on the white backdrop to start the show. As the music under the stage clued the crowd in that something spectacular was about to happen, a debonair figure dressed in a chic Tom Ford tux was elevated to the stage. As the crowd roared its approval, Timberlake’s handpicked band featuring an over exuberant four-piece horn section, two keyboardist, two drummers as well as a bass and guitar players, also rose from the depths of the stage to join their fearless leader. Four background vocalists and six extremely talented dancers would also make their presence felt.
With this being my first real exposure to Timberlake since the N*Sync tour 13 years ago (Pink was the opening act), I had absolutely no clue what songs were performed from his first two solo albums and which ones belonged to his recently released recordings. A little post-concert research revealed that JT had indeed performed all the hits off his first two solo outings. Honestly, this particular night I was more interested in checking out the grown up version of Justin Timberlake. My initial impressions of the singer were all thumbs up until he started conversing with the audience. If he had spoken like the talented actor he is, instead of a junior version of Eminem, his transformation to adulthood would have been complete.
Timberlake doesn’t have to act like some sort of white hip-hop master to enter the world of cool. All he needs to do is sing his songs, move ‘in sync’ with his brilliant dance troupe, and entertain the masses. At each juncture of his entertainment life, whether it was the New Mickey Mouse Clue, N*Sync, a solo career or acting, Timberlake has avoided the pitfalls of stardom to emerge as a happily married entrepreneur and philanthropist. The results of his actions were reflected in the exuberance shown him by the audience assembled here tonight to pay homage to him. It was a fascinating cross-section of people, young and old, that were more than eager to welcome the singer back from his extended hiatus. Many of the women in the crowd knew the words to an assortment of tunes performed while the men, well they just couldn’t help but find themselves slowly grooving to the sounds emanating from the stage whether they wanted to or not.
I’ve never witnessed a back-up band insert themselves into a show to the extent these musicians did. The horn section had happy feet the entire evening. Members often joined Justin at the front of the stage. Sometimes they boogied with the dancers and back-up singers on the platform behind the drum risers and keyboards. The trumpet players in particular were all over the place. They walked up the ramps to toot their horns whenever they felt like it. Their actions were as infectious as the music they were playing, and it added to the overall excitement.
The first half of the show lasted an hour before a ten-minute intermission. Afterwards, it was almost two hours of non-stop action. On a couple of occasions Timberlake would take to the piano to slow things down, but outside of those brief instances, it was dance, dance and dance! The 32-year old star gracefully moved with his handpicked troupe to difficult choreographed numbers without ever missing a note. It was impressive to see Timberlake effortlessly interact with his dancers while he was singing songs. It’s hard to appreciate the level of practice that went into putting this show together until you actually see it firsthand. And even then it’s a sight to behold.
The only real annoyance that turned into a nagging problem was the music drowning out the vocals. For beginners, Timberlake has a falsetto voice. When you have a talented group of highly skilled musicians backing you, it’s easy for them to create a wall of sound that easily overpowers the boss. That’s what happened here. The nuisance was only tolerable because the music was so infectious it more than made up for the vocal aggravation.
An interesting point of the show came during the song “Tunnel Vision” (it was easy to figure out the title) which included pictures of bare female breasts on the giant backdrop screen. The titillation seems to be a trend this year when it comes to videos, which I discovered the particular video of this song has plenty of. Since YouTube has become the Internet’s version of a national radio service, racy videos are starting to make inroads. It’s obviously easier to lure viewers on your computer than listeners on the radio to your music these days especially when you feature naked parts of the female anatomy. It worked wonders for Robin Thicke, who started the boob tube trend with his video “Blurred Lines”. The visual aspect of the song helped it supplant Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as the summer anthem of 2013. That Timberlake would add this voyeuristic twist to his already impressive visual arsenal of dance moves wasn’t needed on this tour, but it didn’t hurt either.
Tonight ‘the brand’ that is Justin Timberlake was on full display for all to take in. Hell, he even managed to remind the 16,000 plus people in attendance he also owned a travel bag company called Ful (pronounced ‘fuel’ – www.ful.com) using subtle messaging on the backdrop during intermission. It apparently worked because I just plugged the company.
After going two hours without recognizing a single song – and that happens when you only listen to rock stations that would sooner shoot themselves than play any Timberlake song – I was finally won over by a clever gimmick. During another one of the singer’s lengthy numbers, and there were plenty of them clocking in over seven minutes, the front of the stage started rising several feet into the air revealing a giant catwalk. With the singer and his dancers moving and grooving on top of it, the entire assembly started gliding over the heads of the crowd below. At one point it stopped, and Justin came over to the wing and sang right in front of my lower level seats. Needless to say, I was pretty damned impressed.
When the moving prop finally made its way back to JT’s Lounge where it stopped, hundreds of camera phones started flashing to capture the moment. A staircase swung into place for the performers to descend, and the next you know Justin Timberlake is a lounge singer in his own club. The VIP’s who’d paid a hefty price to enter the exclusive enclave got their money’s worth and then some. He stayed in the area over a half hour performing numerous songs including the only two I recognized the entire evening, “Jailhouse Rock” and Michal Jackson’s “Human Nature.” The bar extended top became a temporary stage for the dancers, the backup singers and even the horn players who somehow managed to get back there where all the action was taking place. They then hitched a ride back on the catwalk when it returned to its original position on the main stage.
When the lights finally went up, it was midnight. I had been bitten and eventually hooked into standing for three solid hours to watch a show containing music completely foreign to me. On one hand I was amazed it had happened. On the other I was glad it did. Venturing into unknown territory with ‘no strings attached’ can be exciting given the proper motivation. Did the show turn me into a JT fan? No, but I did walk away greatly admiring Justin Timberlake’s talents, business savvy and the fact he had finally matured enough to say ‘bye, bye, bye’ to his boy band past and hello to a very adult future. That’s a 20/20 experience you can clearly see and admire.