ATLANTA - Justin Timberlake wants to “Rock Your Body,” “Drink You Away” and, of course, “Let the Groove Get In.”
He accomplished all of those feats Tuesday night – at least several sections of fans that he pointed out from the stage seemed to be enjoying the drinking part – during a marathon sold-out show that stretched nearly three hours and covered more than 30 songs.
While Timberlake is unarguably one of the brightest stars of his generation –a quadruple threat with his singing, acting, dancing and musicianship – he’s also at that stage in his career where’s he’s reveling in a ginormous comeback album (the biggest seller of 2013 unless Beyonce beats him in a photo finish), critical and commercial adulation and more praise for his continued screen work (“Inside Llewyn Davis”).
Though Timberlake was clearly joking when he said to a fan after the unnecessary 10-minute intermission halfway through the concert, “I’m 32 years old. I can have a f****** intermission if I want one,” there was more than a hint of truth underneath his wisecrack.
Who, at this point, is going to tell Timberlake that his show could use a good editor, much like portions of “The 20/20 Experience” and its less engaging “Part 2,” released in September?
No one, of course. Because the handsome and stylish Timberlake is, often, creatively brilliant. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the exceptional stage design, which melded portions of Roger Waters’ “The Wall” with the slickness of One Direction’s most recent live presentation. About 20 songs into the set, the front chunk of the stage, Lucite stairs and all, literally lifted up and took off to the back of Philips Arena.
But let’s back up.
Timberlake has always astutely surrounded himself with older, wiser musicians, and his 11-piece band – including a spirited horn section – and four backup singers re-created his songs perfectly. How this outfit – dubbed the Tennessee Kids – is going to fit on the “Saturday Night Live” stage this weekend is a mystery.
But whether following Timberlake’s falsetto on the opening “Pusher Love Girl,” coloring “Rock Your Body” with wah-wah guitar, or later, getting Mumford-y with the singer on the magnificent “Drink You Away,” this group (including Atlanta native Justin Gilbert on keyboards) soared.
A live setting also allowed them to broaden songs from recorded form, which sometimes led to unnecessarily long versions (hello, “Strawberry Bubblegum”), but just as often allowed the band and Timberlake to explore his hip-hop leanings (“TKO”) and infatuation with R&B funk (“LoveStoned”).
Timberlake, who soft-shoed his way through nearly every song – sometimes joined by a pack of dancers clad in stylish clothing that mirrored the singer’s designer white dinner jacket-bow tie ensemble – and snapped a finger at every precise lighting cue, seemed to relish being onstage. That’s good, because he’s barely halfway through a tour that runs through next summer.
At times, though, Timberlake’s show seemed oddly hollow – like the prettiest girl in the room who can’t hold a conversation beyond superficial small talk. That sounds unfair considering how much effort Timberlake presents, from those gliding, coordinated dance moves to his elastic vocals to his effortless cool when interacting with a crowd.
But with all of the cute homages thrown in – “Pass the Dutchie” peeked through “Only When I Walk Away”; snippets of Miami Sound Machine and Earth, Wind & Fire popped up in “Let the Groove Get In”; and a vanilla rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” recognized Timberlake’s Memphis roots – the show sometimes felt scattershot, as if Timberlake were trying to shoehorn every influence and childhood memory into the set list.
That said, the vaguely Latin rhythm of “Senorita” (still a crowd favorite with its call-and-response segment) flourished under Timberlake’s command of the electric piano and the subtle Smokey Robinson vibe of “That Girl” – performed at the back of the arena to give those with VIP seats their money’s worth – shimmered.
Timberlake’s vision for this tour, as well as his knack for shuffling older solo hits such as “What Goes Around…Comes Around” and “SexyBack” alongside the new disco horn blasts of “Take Back the Night” (has this song been scooped up for a car commercial yet?), is admirable.
But what it could really use is a heavier serving of soul.