At 8:12 p.m. Saturday night, the lights went dark on the Super Stage built onto the side of the racetrack at the Circuit of the Americas. A scream went through the crowd and the air was filled with the golden voice of… Frank Sinatra? The sound of Ol’ Blue Eyes singing “My Way” might have seemed like an odd intro for an artist whose path from Mouseketeer to teen idol to one of the biggest pop stars of his generation, isn’t particularly iconoclastic, but it was a brilliant crowd read. The masses of inebriated race enthusiasts immediately joined in a swaying singalong.
Moments later, as Justin Timberlake took the stage and began to unwind his epic performance, the significance became clearer. Not only is he a top notch performer with an endless arsenal of serious skills — he sings! he dances! he plays guitar! he plays piano! he slides in a ‘jaunty hat on the crotch’ move and seems cheeky, not sleazy!– his sonic range is remarkable. In just under 90 minutes, he led us on a journey from grand concert halls to sweaty dance clubs to some edgy retro-future astroplane with “Tron”-like special effects.
He opened with the muscular guitar riffs of “Only When You Walk Away” his voice dripping with menacing sensuality as a spectacular display of darting lasers pierced a darkness thick with mist from plentiful fog machines steaming away around the venue. The lights briefly went dark and then he whiplash transitioned into a wholehearted rendition of “Drink You Away” that honky tonked so hard it would not be at all out of place on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. The lights went dark again and then we were in a swanky jazz age club in L.A. while Timberlake swaggered around the stage crooning about his “Suit and Tie.” Then it was back to the uneasy, light-streaked darkness for “FutureSex/LoveSound.”
For his recent shows, Timberlake’s been using the name JT and the Tennesee Kids to shine light on his stellar backing ensemble, loaded with over a dozen dangerous players, including a full horn section and a quartet of backup singers. He’s a very generous performer, sharing the front line frequently, spotlighting his horns and fellow vocalists. When he segued into the sweaty dance club for “My Love,” he brought his guitarist to the front for an epic solo.
When he took his first break immediately afterward, he called his crew “the best band in the world.” Then he took a moment to celebrate the fact that the Dodgers are in the world series. His enthusiasm about the Astros’ rival elicited far more groans than cheers from the Texas crowd. “Go ahead,” he said, indulging them for a minute, then quipping “now shut up.”
He didn’t spend a whole lot of time on talk, but he dedicated an emotional rendition of “Until the End of Time” to Houston. “We are stronger together. I love each and every one of you,” he said, before playing the song seated at the piano while beautiful points of light played across the air above the crowd. Afterward, he asked the crowd to put two fingers in the air for Houston and for Las Vegas.
One of the emotional high points of the show came a few songs later. He acknowledged that Stevie Wonder would headline the following night and paid tribute to the R&B legend by mashing up “My Cherie Amour” with a slowed down version of “What Goes Around…Comes Around” beautifully orchestrated with Timberlake on acoustic guitar.
“No more of that sappy (expletive),” he said at the end and then he kicked it into high gear to take the set out with a thrill ride of hits.”Rock Your Body” turned the party vibes up. Then Timberlake released the sunshine in his pocket and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” turned into the biggest singalong of the night. Just when we were feeling warm and wholesome, he reminded us that “Sexyback” is one of the greatest nasty club bangers of all time.
He finished with a sweeping climatic version of “Mirrors.” As the song came to an end, standing on stage, surrounded by some of the best touring musicians in the business, he seemed swept up in the moment. Looking directly into the eyes of some of the fans in the front row who cheered wildly, he said,”This is what we need in the world. Right here. Right now.”
Then he and his crew took a bow, leaving the mass of people buzzing with good vibes.