Concert Review: Justin Timberlake at FedExForum

November 18, 2013 - Justin Timberlake performs at the FedExForum Monday evening during his 20/20 Experience tour.  (Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)

November 18, 2013 - Justin Timberlake performs at the FedExForum Monday evening during his 20/20 Experience tour. (Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)

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.

Setlist

Pusher Love Girl

Rock Your Body

Don’t Hold the Wall

Future Sex/Love Sound

Like I Love You

My Love

TKO

Strawberry Bubblegum

Summer Love

Lovestoned

Until the End of Time

Cry Me a River

INTERMISSION

Only When I Walk Away

True Blood

Drink You Away

Tunnel Vision

Senorita

Let the Groove Get In

That Girl

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

Murder

Poison (Bell Biv Devoe cover)

Suit and Tie

Sexy Back

Mirrors

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.

Which was in reference to 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 …

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 5

USAidit writes:

Question for you, Chris.
Why wasn't there a concert review, published in the CA, for the Eagles concert, on October 14, 2013?

cherrington writes:

in response to USAidit:

Question for you, Chris.
Why wasn't there a concert review, published in the CA, for the Eagles concert, on October 14, 2013?

I was pretty new on the job when that concert happened and hadn't set up a procedure for concert reviews yet. But, also, it's not feasible to review every concert that happens. We'll try to hit a lot of the big ones (and some of the more interesting small ones).

USAidit writes:

in response to cherrington:

I was pretty new on the job when that concert happened and hadn't set up a procedure for concert reviews yet. But, also, it's not feasible to review every concert that happens. We'll try to hit a lot of the big ones (and some of the more interesting small ones).

I would definitely call The Eagles one of the "big ones".
I couldn't believe the CA didn't cover a concert by one of the greatest groups of our time.

Alexras writes:

in response to cherrington:

I was pretty new on the job when that concert happened and hadn't set up a procedure for concert reviews yet. But, also, it's not feasible to review every concert that happens. We'll try to hit a lot of the big ones (and some of the more interesting small ones).

I agree the Eagles were a big one and the CA should definitely be covering more live shows or at least sharing content from other local writers who are there to cover the events! Like this one from the eagles show: http://topconcertreviews.com/eagles-c...

USAidit writes:

Thanks for the link, Alex. Good review.

Oh, and to the commenter complaining about ticket prices, I bought our tickets at the Forum box office. The cost, per ticket, was $61.00 each.
We were seated in section 222, row N, seats 15 and 16.

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