The first ten years of my life are a bit of a blur – mostly I recall general moods, routines and scenery – but a handful of memories stick out in crisp high-definition replay. One of them is blasting *NSYNC’s “No Strings Attached” album, in the first year of the new millennium, in a friend’s bedroom, sitting on the floorboards next to he and his brother’s bunk bed. That bunk bed is gone now, but I still hang out with those brothers – in fact, I play in a band with them. As for *NSYNC, well that band’s gone, but Justin Timberlake is still very much around and, despite turning my back on him during my pseudo-rock-snob teenage years, I’m now listening to him as intently as I did on that fateful day in 2000.
It’s not unfair to say that JT has done a bit more with himself since then than I have. I bought a second-hand skateboard; he released his chart-topping debut solo album Justified. I grew pubes; he performed at half-time at the Superbowl. I read the final Harry Potter book; he dropped FutureSex/LoveSounds and appeared in a range of prominent Hollywood Films. Anyway, here we are: it’s 2014 and, despite admittedly divergent trajectories, our lives are finally intersecting. Intersecting in a big blue (and white and black and wood-brown) structure in Perth, with ten thousand or so other people, but intersecting nonetheless.
My sister and I have arrived early. We hastily guzzled a jug of Pimm’s at the newest bar in the Perth Cultural Centre (Lot 20) in order to catch the support act, but, frankly, we needn’t have bothered. The Californian band – COMMON KINGS – seem like nice enough blokes, and skilled players; later investigation suggests that some of their original recordings even sound OK, in a reggae-meets-cheap-thrills-pop kind of way. But this set is a mere one part bangin’ beats to three parts cringey histrionics, and I can hardly watch. The band buck and head-bang for the scattered, unimpressed crowd trickling in, rarely performing “songs” – more generally triggering clips from Top 40 hits and shredding/dancing over the top. At one point the dudes are not playing anything at all and are just moshing to the looped intro from Beyonce’s “Run The World,” expecting applause once they’ve completed this feat, too. Yikes.
Such an ultra-poxy support act might seem portentous, but I’m not worried. Weird things happen in the big-business music industry, least of all the booking of tacky supports for major tours. Anticipation for Mr Timberlake still runs high. I duck out and fetch a beer in a big plastic cup, and return just in time to see the seats finally fill up, the lights dim, and an animated introduction flash across the rear-of-stage honeycomb screen. A frantic countdown, a flurry of light-beams and boom: a single silhouette, arms raised, framed by smoke and glow. This is the single most rock-star moment of Justin Timberlake’s show, bordering on absurd, but it’s super satisfying.
And with only a modicum of further, extravagant ado, the tunes erupt. It starts with the shimmering slow-funk stomper “Pusher Love Girl,” a rendition that takes its time to unfurl and crescendo – which provides an opportunity to introduce JT’s epic entourage. Two drum kits (electronic and acoustic), two electric guitars and a bass, four backing vocalists, four horns, two keys players, too many dancers to count. Everything’s laid out in pseudo big-band style with “JT” podiums; Justin introduces his band as The Tennessee Kids; though any and all of this band can disappear at any moment, sinking swiftly through automated platforms in the stage floor. On now to “Rock Your Body,” a song that sounds as fresh as the day it came out of the oven; “My Love,” “TKO,” and “LoveStoned.” Having paraded his talents in the vocal, dance and charisma departments, Timblerlake now turns his attention to a white grand piano that’s materialised at the front of the stage. He performs “Until The End of Time” to a 270º astral donut of glowing, swaying phone screens. It’s a fantastic moment. Better still is the crushingly hefty introduction to Holy Grail [his 2013 collaboration tune with Jay-Z], which segues into the most badass version of “Cry Me A River” imaginable, replete with raging hurricane backdrop and wailing guitar at its beefed-up climax. The lights extinguish; an intermission is called.
This first half has been pretty much exactly what I expected from a Justin Timberlake arena show: the man and his sensual tenor, a great band, smooth dance moves, flashy visuals, mean beats and sultry grooves. The second half brings the surprises.
There’s Justin’s yarn about Australians and partying and drinking which features a convincing Aussie accent and culminates in him singing happy birthday to a girl in the crowd who’s turning 18. There’s JT playing acoustic guitar not only for the ensuing song (Drink You Away) but also for a stripped-back rendition of “What Goes Around…Comes Around,” Elvis’ “Hearthbreak Hotel,” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”
There’s a partial cover of “Jungle Boogie” and – perhaps most surprisingly – the stage coming apart entirely, with a central ridge becoming a sort of mobile bridge that slowly travels from one end of the arena to the other, allowing Timberlake and select fellow musicians, singers and dancers to get within spitting distance of everyone in the room. They even climb off at our end (“the back”) and walk around on top of the bar, chatting and doing shots with the crowd stationed there, in the middle of the show. It’s all bound up in a seamless second half that’s almost perfectly paced, with Señorita an early crowd pleaser, “Suit and Tie” a worthy faux-closer; quintessentially seductive and twitchy “SexyBack” as penultimate thriller, and earnest power-ballad-cum-deceptively-dancey-banger “Mirrors” to close. I defy any bastard in that room to’ve not been frothing on the final few choruses. Huuuuge.
I skip out of the arena feeling elated. The show was damn near perfect. Not just the execution, which was predictably spot-on, or the production, which was predictably high-budget and impressive. But the spirit in which the show went ahead was genuinely inspiring: a brilliant curation of genres and moods, fierce charisma, compelling experimentation. The format – sometimes Justin solo, sometimes extremely focused on the band as a whole, or individual instrumentalists, felt like a pivot point in JT’s career, bridging the gap between ex-boy-band heartthrob popstar and a versatile bandleader and creative figurehead whose palette expands beyond merely ‘cool’ and ‘sexy.’ Fourteen years ago, fate (and lots of marketing) brought Justin Timberlake into my life. In the years in between, I never imagined I’d see him like this – performing one of the most phenomenal all-round shows I can recall laying my eyes and ears upon.