Prior to last night at FedExForum, when Justin Timberlake and his large band performed a three-hour, 30-song tour de force before a rapt, sold-out crowd, it had been more than six years since the Memphis-bred megastar had played a public concert in his hometown.
That show, in the same building in August of 2007, came as Timberlake was riding the crest of his colossal second album, Future Sex/Love Sounds. Despite his stature, and the adoration of a crowd that had come for a coronation, Timberlake’s performance on that night was slightly marred by a palpable self-consciousness, as he labored, too transparently, to bury his teen-pop past.
Six years later, Timberlake returned to his hometown fans fully grown.
Timberlake first emerged, elevating from beneath the stage, at 9 p.m., suit-and-tie dapper in a white-on-black ensemble and provoking legitimately Elvisian screams from some of the women in the building. He then led his 11-piece band -- augmented by four backup singers and, later, six dancers -- through a surprisingly unadorned performance of “Pusher Love Girl,” the slow-jam, falsetto funk lead track off 20/20 Experience, the first of his two chart-topping 2013 albums.
At the song’s conclusion, Timberlake put his hands in his pockets and stood for several beats, soaking in the adulation.
“Oh, it’s like that tonight, M-Town? Y’all feel some kind of way tonight, don’t you,” Timberlake asked the crowd, before turning to look at his band. “I told you. My city, man.”
This first thrust of the show was reminiscent of a different prior local Timberlake concert, the small club show he did at Beale Street’s New Daisy Theatre in the summer of 2006, where he played bandleader more than pop star. The first of Monday night’s two sets -- separated by a brief intermission -- was Timberlake returning with a successful attempt to take that club show and blow it up to arena-sized proportions.
Pusher Love Girl
Rock Your Body
Don’t Hold the Wall
Future Sex/Love Sound
Like I Love You
Until the End of Time
Cry Me a River
Only When I Walk Away
Drink You Away
Let the Groove Get In
Heartbreak Hotel (Elvis cover)
Not a Bad Thing
Human Nature (Michael Jackson)
What Goes Around …
(Song I couldn’t I.D.)
Take Back the Night
Poison (Bell Biv Devoe cover)
Suit and Tie
Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley were the pop icons Timberlake was most compared to in his ascendance, and his direct invocation of both later in the night was a testament to his current confidence and comfort. But the style of these initial performances instead suggested a mix of Rat Pack and James Brown.
The second set, for which Timberlake symbolically changed into a black jacket, began with the slinky, swaggering rock of “Only When I Walk Away.” The staging grew more elaborate in this set, including a portion of the stage that lifted off the floor and transported Timberlake and his singers and dancers across the Forum expanse, over the heads of those with floor seats, and to a “VIP Lounge” area at the back of the arena. This second set also included a couple of laser-light shows Pink Floyd could only fantasize about. But even as spectacle competed with the music, the combination framed a showman who’s grown more commanding over time.
It can be difficult to transition studio-crafted pop to a live setting, and the results were understandably mixed. I’ve now heard Timberlake perform his early hit “Rock Your Body” at three concerts and it’s never been as bracing as in the original Neptunes’ production. But “Cry Me a River,” with which Timberlake closed the opening set -- “Are you ready?,” he asked teasingly as the first, familiar notes bubbled up; we were -- is a modern-pop masterpiece that was fully realized on stage.
Timberlake and his band similarly found every rich opening and twist in “My Love,” bringing the song from a falsetto-and-piano opening to a duel-guitar finale, while a stripped-down second-set reading of his “What Goes Around …” served one of his most durable songs well.
Some of Timberlake’s new material, particularly early in the second set, dragged, such as the throbbing “Thriller”-esque “True Blood,” performed on a stage drenched in red. But the 2013 disco-fied hit “Take Back the Night” was improved in a live setting, with Timberlake getting sharp counterpoint from his horn section in a display that hinted at prime Prince.
Timberlake saluted his hometown throughout the night.
“Memphis is where I’m from,” he said, pounding his chest. “It’s so good to be home. I’m just going to enjoy this for a minute. I want to take the opportunity to thank the city of Memphis for ‘JT Day.’ Mayor Wharton, it was a very nice gesture.”
“As they say, it’s hard out here for a pimp, when you’re trying to get some money for the rent,” Timberlake said in one song introduction, quoting the Oscar-winning song from Memphis director Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow.” Timberlake, who was in the cast for Brewer’s next film, “Black Snake Moan,” then said, simply, “I love you Craig Brewer.”
Timberlake strapped on an acoustic guitar for a cover of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” -- “Now, I’ve always wanted to do this” -- and asked the crowd, at the end of the song, to “Give it up one time,” for his Memphis-based guitarist, Elliott Ives.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better homecoming,” Timberlake said after a mammoth performance of his arena-ready new anthem, “Mirrors.” “This is one of the best nights of my life. I love this town.”
Best Cover: Not “Heartbreak Hotel” or Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” but “new jack swing” trio Bell Biv Devoe’s 1990 hit “Poison” for which Timberlake gave his two male backup singers equal billing, trading off verses and vintage dance moves. It was fun. It was generous. It showed off the band. And the crowd popped big time for the song.
Arena Action: I ran into guitarist Elliott Ives outside the arena before the show, where was trying to round-up his Tennessee Kids bandmates to squeeze into the local Amurica photo booth. Not sure if he pulled this off, but his excitement over the show to come was palpable.
The street scene around the arena and on Beale was bustling but unusually serene. It was downright pleasant. Maybe that had something to do with a crowd that, like Timberlake himself, skewed a little older than his previous Memphis concert. (Witness the reaction for “Poison.”) There were lots of young adult couples in the pre-show line that snaked around the Forum plaza as if it had been designed by Family Circus cartoonist Bil Keane. As one friend, himself a coupled young adult, joked before the show, “A lot of babysitters are getting paid in Memphis tonight.”
Ties were legion in the pre-show crowd, but I only saw about a dozen suits on the night.
Grizzlies Synergy Copious.Timberlake’s not just a minority owner of FedExForum’s primary tenant. He’s a fan.
“It’s not every day you get to rock the Grindhouse. Let me show you my Tony Allen,” Timberlake said, raising his arms in imitation of Allen’s familiar body-builder flex, before launching into“Summer Love.”
The Grizzlies were in the first quarter of a road game against the Los Angeles Clippers at the time, and almost immediately after Timberlake’s Allen reference, my phone started blowing up with messages and tweets like this one from Clippers beat writer Dan Woike.
Tony Allen Did What?
Tony Allen is called for a flagrant foul for kicking Chris Paul in the face.— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) November 19, 2013
Which was in reference to this.
Oh, He Did This ...
Timberlake donned a baby blue Grizzlies cap for the closing “Mirrors,” in which a yellow Grizzlies growl towel from the crowd was shown on the screen behind him.
As the crowd emptied out just after midnight, scores of concertgoers gathered around the big screen in the concourse to watch the end of the Grizzlies-Clippers game, which, at one point, inspired a “Z-Bo! Z-Bo!” chant as the team’s burly, beloved power forward scored a victory-sealing basket. When in the Forum …