in performance: justin timberlake

Justin Timberlake.

A certain irony revealed itself last night at Rupp Arena, triggered by the fact Justin Timberlake named his current tour after his recent “Man of the Woods” album. After all, the title conjures all sorts of naturalistic images, many of which became artfully visible through the use of multiple see-through video screens that rolled up and down during the two-hour concert, making these living postcards seem more like dancing holograms.

But that came later in the set. When Timberlake and his 20-plus member posse of singers, dancers and band members entered amid a light show that would have made Pink Floyd envious, the feel was almost space age. Then when the pop celebrity took to dancing amid showers of lasers for the show-opening “Filthy,” the concept of a man of the woods didn’t just seem foreign. It seemed non-existent.

Timberlake would, in time, slow the show down to a modestly more relaxed pace that played more to his tour and album’s stated theme – as in an acoustic sit down set around a makeshift campfire that meshed amiable hits like “Until the End of Time” with covers of tunes by Fleetwood Mac, Lauryn Hill and even John Denver that were assigned to his backup singers.

All of this woodsy congeniality was essentially a diversion from a program that began like shot from a cannon with a dance-pop party drive that didn’t even remotely dissipate until Timberlake formally greeted the crowd of 18,000 nearly an hour into the show.

From a visual standpoint, the concert was a stunner that played out on a series of three stages utilizing the entire arena floor to create an in-the-round feel. But audiences members were also planted in and around the ‘S’ formation of the stages, including one near the middle of the floor that included, no joke, its own bar.

Through that, Timberlake and his entourage moved and grooved through the beat-heavy bravado of “SexyBack,” the Marvin Gaye-ish pop-soul of “Suit and Tie” and the blasting synth-savvy orchestration of “Cry Me a River.” What unraveled was a masterful pop display with a visual aptitude that proved fashionable and functional for Timberlake’s tireless workouts.

Go beyond that, however, and things were a little problematic. For all of his physicality and good-natured exuberance, Timberlake never really caught fire as a vocalist last night. His appealing high tenor vocals were noticeably thin and, ultimately, little match for the musical weight of such a massive band. There were a few intriguing moments, like the acoustic revelry summoned during “Drink You Away” and the very focused and organically anthemic delivery of “Say Something” (far and away the best of the “Man of the Woods” tunes). But for a sizable portion of the show, Timberlake relegated himself to chief cheerleader and dance captain by letting his backup singers – and, at times, even the audience – tackle much of the heavy vocal lifting.

The other difficulty was the sound. The was one of the weakest, muddiest sound mixes for a major Rupp concert in recent memory with bass drowning out much the brass and percussive finesse of Timberlake’s band – a surprise indeed given how sharp the visual presentation of the performance was.

Such was life last night for pop music’s man of the woods – a performance star with energy to burn and audience-friendly charm by the truckload, but also with a surprising hesitancy of letting loose on the dance floor, or the pseudo-great outdoors, with a commanding howl.



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