RALEIGH — 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 Valvanos name in the PNC Arena rafters and saluted Jimmy V as one of the greatest of all time.
Its great to be here in North Cackalacky! crowed the Tennessee native, and the crowd roared. In Timberlakes 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 nights 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 Timberlakes ambitions, with songs by Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Jay-Z.
This is supposed to be the tour that confirms Timberlakes 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. Wednesdays show featured plenty of local references, including a toast he drank to the beautiful state of North Carolina and a bit of Petey Pablos Tar Heel anthem Raise Up.
Sonically, however, the show was a bit of a mess, as Timberlakes to-die-for falsetto was mostly lost in the muddy roar of a terrible sound mix (as bad as Ive ever heard in PNC Arena). It took a half-dozen songs and the beginning of My Love, which started with just keyboards and Timberlakes singing, to finally get a bead on his voice.
Sound aside, the show was good. Very, very good. Great? Only intermittently.
As likable as Timberlakes onstage persona is, its 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 its hard to imagine anything cornier than covering Presleys Heartbreak Hotel straight-up in 2013, Timberlake was great on that one. A few songs later, his version of Jacksons Human Nature was even better, structured as a semi-medley with Timberlakes own What Goes Around Comes Around.
But heres the thing: It was impossible not to notice how much better Jacksons song was. Yes, living up to Michael Jackson would be a tall order for any living mortal to pull off. Its also the task that Timberlake seems to have set for himself.
Maybe hell get there someday.
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