Everyone knew it would happen. The inevitable announcement of Justin Timberlake‘s secret-but-not-really show at South by Southwest. And once it was officially unveiled, everyone was probably annoyed that it was a cyclone of big-time corporate sponsors — Chevy, the new and improved Myspace (now with a lowercase “s”), Tito’s vodka, etc. And plenty of people thought we had reached Peak Timberlake during his weeklong Fallon residency, or that this “Suit & Tie” shit was tired and boring. But the crazy fans who had to do God-knows-what to score tickets to Timberlake’s show on Saturday (March 16), the last night of SXSW, and the cluster of media and VIPs who got in…those lucky few witnessed pop perfection. It was the type of performance that makes all that extraneous stuff, well, extraneous.
This was my first time seeing JT live, and the key takeaway for me was that this man was born to be on a stage. That was already clear years ago, yes. But when you see him do it in person, it somehow exceeds all the notions you have in your head about “consummate entertainers.”
On Saturday night, like Kendrick Lamar at the SPIN Party the day before, JT had no problem making the new material wait until the 20th minute of the set. In fact, he threw a curveball by starting out with an acoustic guitar in hand for “Like I Love You,” followed by “My Love” and “Cry Me a River.” Just a little reminder about why we wanted him to come back in the first place.
Then he broke out “Pusher Love Girl,” and there was a noticeable drop in the crowd’s energy level. (Even Timberlake himself seemed to be feeling the heat in the room.)
Justin Timberlake — ”Pusher Love Girl”
“Senorita” got things going again, followed by “That Girl.” His new stuff isn’t as instantly stimulating as his prior material, but I think the middling reviews that were filed a few hours after The 20/20 Experience went live will prove to be wrong. Mainly because each of his new songs has at least one moment of pop bliss. This song’s moment happens to be the “so what…” hook.
After this, it became clear the night was less about pimping his new album and more about entertaining the shit out of the 800 people there, because JT played “What Goes Around…Comes Around” and covered INXS‘ 1987 hit “Need You Tonight.”
Once the cover began, I was no longer a reliable narrator. But here’s what I do know. There was no Jay-Z cameo on “Suit & Tie,” but there was an “All Gold Everything” homage. And then “SexyBack” sounded as sexy and edgy as ever, and it featured another Trinidad Jame$ reference, with JT capping off the song by barking, “Popped a molly, I’m sweatin’, woo!”
I think it’s clear I was thoroughly impressed by JT’s whole thing. But I have to mention his backing band, too. Damn, this guy recruited an ace bunch of musicians. I don’t know who makes up the Tennessee Kids or what their musical background is, but these folks can play (and sing). And JT makes them work for it, coming up with completely revamped arrangements for some of his hits. For intance, “Cry Me a River” ended with two guitarists shredding and headbanging. Just think about that for a second.
My only complaint of the night was that Timberlake didn’t do any of the weirder new cuts like “Blue Ocean Floor” or “Let the Groove Get In.” A minor, miniscule, infinitesimal complaint, to be sure, because on the whole he had us under his spell for some Fantasia shit. This sounds like hyperbole, but keep in mind he achieved all of this while wearing a freaking tuxedo shirt. Such is the power of JT.