Review: Justin Timberlake not yet immortal

dmenconi@newsobserver.comNovember 14, 2013 

— About 45 minutes into his marathon Wednesday night show, Justin Timberlake paused to take a breath and speak to the audience.

After telling the capacity crowd it was “the loudest of the tour” (something he probably says every night), Timberlake noted the late N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano’s name in the PNC Arena rafters and saluted Jimmy V as “one of the greatest of all time.”

“It’s great to be here in North Cackalacky!” crowed the Tennessee native, and the crowd roared. In Timberlake’s world, you see, everything is great, even showbiz tropes.

Way back in July 2000, a 19-year-old Timberlake performed here at this same building when it was known as the Raleigh Entertainment & Sports Arena, as part of the enormously popular boy band *NSYNC. Thirteen years later, *NSYNC is long gone (“Bye, Bye, Bye”). But Timberlake remains as popular as ever as a solo act, in which capacity he has apparently set his sights on world domination.

Wednesday night’s show clocked in at close to three hours and more than 30 songs – mostly originals, but also a few covers. Some of the cover choices revealed the scope of Timberlake’s ambitions, with songs by Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Jay-Z.

This is supposed to be the tour that confirms Timberlake’s place in that pantheon of all-time greats, a high-tech, big-band extravaganza melding old-school showmanship with all the modern gadgetry of contemporary superstar performance. Imagine the late Cab Calloway returning from beyond the grave to saddle up a barrage of lasers and go hip-hop. Lasers stabbed and throbbed, and platforms went up and down and back and forth, as the star and his backup minions performed all over the floor of the arena.

Timberlake himself sang and danced and played (and the dancing was especially spectacular), ending the show on his knees before rising to take a bow. But most of all, he wooed. Timberlake is an immensely likable performer, and he went out of his way to be ingratiating. Wednesday’s show featured plenty of local references, including a toast he drank “to the beautiful state of North Carolina” and a bit of Petey Pablo’s Tar Heel anthem “Raise Up.”

Sonically, however, the show was a bit of a mess, as Timberlake’s to-die-for falsetto was mostly lost in the muddy roar of a terrible sound mix (as bad as I’ve ever heard in PNC Arena). It took a half-dozen songs and the beginning of “My Love,” which started with just keyboards and Timberlake’s singing, to finally get a bead on his voice.

Sound aside, the show was … good. Very, very good. Great? Only intermittently.

As likable as Timberlake’s onstage persona is, it’s undeniable that none of his songs are as memorable as his charismatic combination of cool and regular-guy accessibility. The flashes of edge he showed – the occasional crotch-grab and profanity, and fleeting glimpses of video-screen nudity during “Tunnel Vision” – seemed a bit forced.

Dude sure can sing, though. While it’s hard to imagine anything cornier than covering Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” straight-up in 2013, Timberlake was great on that one. A few songs later, his version of Jackson’s “Human Nature” was even better, structured as a semi-medley with Timberlake’s own “What Goes Around … Comes Around.”

But here’s the thing: It was impossible not to notice how much better Jackson’s song was. Yes, living up to Michael Jackson would be a tall order for any living mortal to pull off. It’s also the task that Timberlake seems to have set for himself.

Maybe he’ll get there someday.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/onthebeat

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