Wednesday, February 26, 2014

LIVE FROM NEW YORK: Justin Timberlake Live in '20/20' Vision

Justin Timberlake & his Tennessee Kids (including Aaron Camper, far right). (c)
Forgive me for my brief vacation-hiatus. There is literally so much happening in the music world at the moment, it's almost overwhelming (almost). However, last week I spent my staycation in the Greatest City of the World with Mama Melismatic -- we went to two Broadway shows (Matilda and Cinderella, the latter featuring the adorable Carly Rae Jepsen in the titular role), finally saw "Dallas Buyers Club" (if you haven't seen it, you must) and we went to a concert at Madison Square Garden. But not just any old concert -- we saw Justin Timberlake for our sixth time as a team (if you count the three times as a member of *NSYNC, which I obviously do).

Justin was all suited (and tied) up for his The 20/20 Experience World Tour, making its way through NYC. As to be expected, Justin definitely didn't disappoint -- the show was equal parts vocal gymnastics, choreography, lights, spectacle and musical showmanship at his finest. I think it goes without saying at this point that JT will be going down as one of the best of our generation and 20/20 summed up all the reasons why quite nicely. 

Despite being ill on the night of the concert (a Wednesday, so it was postponed to that Friday), you wouldn't have known it (except for the date change, of course). He was brimming with energy that included intricate dance routines, deftly incorporating guitar and piano, zig-zagging all over the Garden and back again -- and somehow pulling through a ginormous and impressive 30-song setlist that spanned all three (or four depending on how you wanna look at it) solo albums plus a handful of covers with only a ten-minute intermission (I'm guessing to change his suit).

Justin Timberlake on guitar. (c)
I should mention the covers first since I wasn't really expecting them. Given that he was in New York (New York), he offered up an impromptu version Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" and a few lines of Alicia Keys's chorus "Empire State of Mind". My original favorite from the first half of 20/20, "Let The Groove Get In", included interpoles of Gloria Estefan's "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You". In his "acoustic"-esque final bow, he paid tribute to two of his main inspirations with a cover each: Elvis Presley via "Heartbreak Hotel" and Michael Jackson with "Human Nature" (complete with crowd singalong). As the set closed out prior to his grandiose encore, Kool & The Gang's "Jungle Boogie" slipped in unannounced before JT and his Tennessee Kids busted out Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison", complete with choreography.

The show opened with the now Grammy Award winning and my unequivocal current fave of the 20/20 albums "Pusher Love Girl" in its full symphonic glory and it was a huge highlight. "Gimme What I Don't Know (I Want)" was melded into Justified's "Rock Your Body" (surprising). "Don't Hold The Wall", although a bit flat in recorded form, came to life much more on stage. More recent single "TKO" felt like it went on and on but he made up for it with a one-two-three punch of FutureSex singles in "Summer Love", "LoveStoned" and a beautiful piano-assisted version of "Until the End of Time". 

When "Holy Grail" was cued up, everyone around me held their breath in the hopes that Jay-Z would show up. Spoiler Alert: he didn't. Not long after Justin finished his signature chorus of the song, he jumped right in to "Cry Me A River" -- another standout not just because the song is a classic but because of its live, string-based arrangement. I'm convinced that while Justin's uptempos are a lot of fun, nothing comes close to his personal midtempos/ballads, with "River" being a perfect example.

The second half of the show really got cooking with the country-fried ballad "Drink You Away" which I only gained real appreciation for after seeing it performed live (complete with Justin on guitar). The large horizontal set that Justin was performing on with his four vocalist Tennessee Kids (which included, to my utter delight, Aaron Camper!) and dancers rose high into the air during "Let The Groove Get In" and moved forward out and over the standing floor crowd to come to rest above the VIP section at the back of the Garden. "That Girl" was another highlight here before Justin jumped down to the smaller "second" stage at the back of the venue and picked back up his guitar for "What Goes Around...Comes Around" (bits of MJ's "Human Nature" were brought back here and weaved into the bridge quite seamlessly) -- far and away my favorite moment of the night.

The set was closed out with the song that began this era -- "Suit & Tie". Love it or hate it, it certainly sounds much better live with live trumpets. The lights dimmed, the crowd hollered and JT returned for a two song encore of "Sexyback" and "Mirrors" (another song that will forever remain in Justin's pantheon of fantastic pop songs).

Overall, I left with a much better taste in my mouth for the 20/20 albums -- the best of the material of the two puzzle pieces were put on display. All of his prior singles were there, too (including, happily, "FutureSex/LoveSound" the album cut) so in a sense it felt much more like a 'Greatest Hits' kind of tour. There were no lags, no stops and starts. Justin is a seasoned vet and it shows in his performance ethic. There is a reason why he is the artist I've seen live and in concert the most; not only was he the soundtrack to my teenage years, he remains to be the soundtrack to my 20's. Here's to Justin and to what's next from my generation's superstar.

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