If you think “concert” and “show” are interchangeable terms, Justin Timberlake’s performance Thursday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City aptly demonstrated the difference.
Beyond the laser lights, and the sheer, hanging projection screens, and the stylized-Z-shaped walkway that effectively added two more stages, there’s the fact that Timberlake was accompanied by two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, a percussionist, two keyboardists, a four-piece horn section, four backing singers, and six dancers.
Unless you’re at the symphony, 22 people onstage simultaneously is a bit too hectic and chaotic to qualify as a concert.
Furthermore, so many of the set’s early tracks seemed to treat lyrics as mere time-killers and space-fillers until the next choreography routine kicked in.
To be fair, none of that mattered much to the thousands of fans ready to lose their minds every time he so much as glanced in their direction.
Alas, as I suspect I am not JT’s target demographic, I was hoping for a bit more.
At times, he did deliver. As the set progressed toward the tunes that relegated the dancers to afterthoughts and deservedly shifted more of the focus to his captivating band and brilliantly-harmonized vocalists, that was when someone not already obsessed with him and predisposed to fawning over his every move could really recognize and appreciate his skill.
That was the most frustrating realization of the night, though — he’s clearly a talented and charismatic performer, but how he chooses to deploy it all proved maddeningly inconsistent.
There were moments I loved, like when he let his voice do the work instead of his feet. But there were also so many I loathed — bored as I was by yet another break in his singing so that he could dance instead. I’m convinced there is a skilled musician in there somewhere, but it was frequently too much effort to go looking for it, buried as it was beneath so many excessive and unnecessary layers of “showman.”
Opening song • “Filthy,” JT’s lead single from his new album, kicked off the proceedings in stilted, bizarre fashion. As the bass- and synth-heavy music blared, he belted out spoken-word-style excessive repetitions of such tepid lyrics as “If you know what’s good” and “Haters gon’ say it’s fake.” Go ahead and call me a hater, then — there was not one authentic bit of music in the whole song.
Highlight(s) • On the other hand, JT’s performance of “Mirrors” was the total package. For one thing, it felt like the first genuine moment of him being content to sing — and when he wants to do that, the man can sing. Beyond that, the song had a beautiful, dramatic arc, thanks to tension added by the band’s slow, simmering build, and the singers’ lovely vocal augmentations. The crowd singalong at song’s end was a demonstration of pure joy, of legitimately being caught up in the moment. A late-in-the-set performance of “Say Something,” featuring Timberlake on an acoustic guitar, then the vocalists joining in and lifting it to a swell, then the full band filling it out with buoyant energy, was a close runner-up.
Lowlight • The segment of the show featuring JT and a contingent of his cadre sitting around in a circle, campout-under-the-stars style, looking like a bad parody of a Patagonia advertisement, felt like a flimsy and forced attempt at folksiness. Timberlake’s assertion that, “Where I’m from, we like to sit around a campfire and tell our stories” was eye-rollingly cringeworthy. But then, his whole “Man of the Woods” premise is anachronistic — much as he tries to convince people he’s more simple Southern boy from Tennessee than pop star married to an impossibly beautiful, famous actress and now living in L.A., it just doesn’t work. If it’s possible to wear flannel ironically, he managed it. His whole, “Oh shucks, I’m just a normal guy like y’all” routine falls flat when you can’t help but think, “I bet that fringed jacket he’s got on cost more than my mortgage payment.” Just be yourself, JT — just be yourself.
Crowd favorite(s) • “SexyBack” was the first performance of the night to truly flip the switch on audience reaction from “adoring and engaged” to “full-on going nuts.” A bit later, a murderer’s-row string of hits that included “Señorita,” “Suit & Tie,” “My Love,” “Cry Me a River” and “Mirrors” sent his fanbase into a prolonged and sustained frenzy.
Quotable • “Hey, y’all came to party tonight, huh? Salt Lake City came to get down tonight!” he yelled out at the conclusion of “Mirrors.” “I don’t know if it’s the altitude, but I feel a little crazy right now. Anything could happen!”
- Midnight Summer Jam
- Man of the Woods
- Higher Higher
- Suit & Tie
- My Love
- Cry Me a River
- Drink You Away
- Until the End of Time
- Dreams (Fleetwood Mac cover)
- Ex-Factor (Lauryn Hill cover)
- Come Together (The Beatles cover)
- Thank God I’m a Country Boy (John Denver cover)
- Morning Light
- What Goes Around … Comes Around
- Say Something
- Summer Love
- Rock Your Body
- Like I Love You
- Can’t Stop the Feeling!