When Justin Timberlake played his first show in five years in New Orleans during Super Bowl weekend 2013, he did so in a black suit, crisp white dress shirt, bow tie and short, slicked-back hair clipped in a classic Hollywood style.
Sunday night at the Smoothie King Center, he returned with subtle changes in his look. The suit became a black sport coat and black jeans. The white shirt was untucked and open at the collar. He traded dress shoes for white running shoes, and his hair was shorn on the sides, long on top.
In 2013, Timberlake presented himself as a star; Sunday, he was a star who came to party.
Timberlake became a star as a teenager, but unlike most other singers in boy bands, he transitioned into a career as an adult that was both commercially successful and critically respected. He starred in movies, married beautifully and become a regular presence on “Saturday Night Live.”
That night in 2013, he performed with the right combination of excitement, pride, assurance and modesty. He recognized his good fortune and appreciated it.
His stance Sunday night was less nuanced as he worked hard to entertain a full arena instead of a temporary tent that held a few thousand fans. When he paused after the opening “Pusher Love Girl” with his hands in his pockets as the crowd screamed, his bemusement seemed theatrical, as if a similar moment had happened in a similar way the night before and the night before that and the night before that.
Admittedly, it’s probably easier to seem genuinely touched when you’re onstage for the first time in several years than when you’re partway through a world tour that started in November and will take you to Poland, Iceland and New Zealand in the next two months.
This show focuses on Timberlake the dancer, so the band toughened up the funk accordingly. “Pusher Love Girl” sounded like Prince’s approximation of big band jazz, and “FutureSex/LoveSound” had a wiry throb.
He was joined by six dancers, but they rarely added anything meaningful to the show, creating motion more than excitement, particularly next to Timberlake’s Michael Jackson-inspired moves. “If I’m moving slow, it’s because I had some gumbo before the show,” he announced, but he wasn’t moving slow.
But his show wasn’t about dancing either; it was simply about entertaining the audience, and one of the show’s smartest touches was that a rear projection screen used to project visuals only occasionally showed close-ups of Timberlake. When the whole show appears on a concert’s big screen, it’s easy to find yourself watching the screen instead of the stage — in effect, watching television in an arena. Timberlake kept the attention focused on the party going on onstage, where he and the dancers regularly interacted with the band.
That doesn’t mean the screen didn’t do things. As Timberlake sang the end of “LoveStoned,” a jagged, geometric landscape rolled behind him like a first-generation video game, and “Cry Me a River” ended the first set with a gray, animated storm producing twisters by the score behind him.
After intermission, he returned with “Only When I Walk Away” from “The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2.” Lasers swept the arena during the hard, guitar-driven piece of psychedelic funk, suggesting that the show might go in a more electronic or hard direction. In fact, that was the gravitational low point of the show; from there on, Timberlake’s set got breezier and more obviously crowd-pleasing.
During “Let the Groove In,” the entire front section of the stage was lifted on hydraulic jacks and moved to the back of the arena while Timberlake and his dancers performed on its Plexiglas top. It’s a tribute to his charisma that when he pointed down to a woman 10 to 15 feet below him, she shrieked as if he’d just caressed her cheek.
At the back of the hall, he and the dancers descended to the VIP area, where he performed a short set, with him on a small stage and the dancers on the tables. He covered Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” as a nod to his hometown, Memphis, but he could have chosen his cover more wisely. He couldn’t find the gravity or groove to make the moment his; instead, he seemed lightweight. In contrast, his version of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” suited him beautifully.
Once back at the main stage, he further reminded the audience of his own lighter days by covering Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison.” The song is inextricably linked to MTV, which aired “Total Request Live,” the show that in the early 2000s introduced tweens to N’Sync along with the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. That connection, though, seemed to go right by the crowd, who enjoyed it as just another party jam, like the snippet of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” that he quoted moments earlier.
After a smooth, undeniable “Suit & Tie” effectively ended the show, Timberlake paused briefly on the dark stage before launching into the encore-like “SexyBack,” seemingly the most awaited song of the night.
I’d say he went a bridge too far by finishing the night with the substantially lighter, pop-singalong “Mirrors,” but the crowd treated the moment like a victory lap and joined him. The song wasn’t classic, but, like the show, it made people happy.