Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield
There’s an idea – peculiarly British – that flawless musicianship sometimes comes at the expense of soul. I think it’s something put about by non-musicians trying to deal with the sick feeling of seeing someone brilliant onstage. Watching a great musician is like watching a wire-walker. You’re jittery, elated, adrenalised – but what can you do about it, standing in the crowd like Soft Mick? I felt this way when I saw Dweezil Zappa at the Barbican in 2011, duetting with a giant, pixelated version of his dad: this is too good. Will the pleasure never end? And I felt it so much at Justin Timberlake’s gig in Sheffield on 30 March that I had to leave before the last song and retire to bed to watch YouTube clips of the tour instead, better able to contend with my excitement on a 12-inch screen.
Timberlake and his 11-piece band the Tennessee Kids are rammed in a tiny space at the front of the stage for the drinking song “Drink You Away”. One of the backing singers is on the floor, a leg folded under her; one of the horn players looks like John Shuttleworth; every musician is singing. This moment of carefully choreographed chaos, an unusual use of a vast, clean space, is one of several simple but innovative production tricks tonight. Another is the interval (every big show should have an interval); another is the moving Perspex runway hanging across the crowd, raking the entire arena front to back so everyone, at some point, gets a close-up look at Timberlake’s face.
Gigs of this size often feel like a one-way deal: pop royalty puts on wonderful pageant for the scrofulous masses, exits exhausted, does it all again the following night. But I can testify, from my position under the plastic rung, that Timberlake appears to be one of those rare endothermic showmen whose energy is continually topped up by little collisions with the crowd. His eyes dart from face to face and he bites his bottom lip like he’s trying not to laugh. It’s probably just the way he’s wired – he’s got ADHD – but he’s one of the only musicians I’ve seen who appears to be more lively at the end of the show than at the start, like some kind of strange Duracell bunny in spats.
Born in Memphis, he was a child star on the Disney show The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside a pubescent Britney, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. After a stint with the boy band ’N Sync, he reinvented himself at the turn of the millennium with a slick 1970s soul-funk sound, just before everyone else started doing that kind of thing. He went into movies and established himself as someone with a brain through various satirical TV skits, including one in which he played Elton John singing a version of “Candle in the Wind” for Hugo Chávez (Saturday Night Live). Last year’s album The 20/20 Experience impressed the kind of people who call themselves “serious music fans” with its intricate, eight-minute, Quincy Jones-style soul-pop songs. When our distant forebears look back on popular music, they will not be able to distinguish between the best of his output – such as “Rock Your Body” – and a tune by Michael Jackson. His voice is a bit bleaty at times but that goes with the territory.
The Tennessee Kids rise from below the stage – congas first, shiny as a fire engine, then horns, each player sprouting up behind a little grey lectern, like tombstones in a cartoon haunted house. The string players backstage appear as huge shadows, reminding me of the scary brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.
The 20/20 Experience seems an appropriate name for a show that synthesises vast swaths of 20th-century pop culture, from speakeasies to James Bond, Prince to Stevie Wonder, and its recent incarnations in Janelle Monáe and Outkast. There are moments of musical trickery, such as when he folds the last chorus of Jackson’s “Human Nature” into his own song and passes it through a minor key. As he strolls at one end of the arena, John Shuttleworth and friends play Miles Davis’s “So What” casually at the other, as if it were an afterthought.
The crowd seems to be coping well with the high quality of the show: 20,000 people join Timberlake in a rapid-fire falsetto line about drivin’ in the car with the top down. He has won polls for being sexy, though I can’t see it myself – former child stars often remain curiously asexual, especially the males, so high of voice and smooth of skin. He is a pro golfer with a fashion line in what Alan Partridge might call “sports casual” and has endorsement deals with Walmart and Audi. But his recent film roles have played up the idea of unselfconscious dweebery to great effect – the polo-necked folkie in Inside Llewyn Davis, or his part in Bad Teacher, in which he dry-humps Cameron Diaz with a roar and a wet patch on his trousers. His charisma is physical. He does the dance routines, joining his chorus line for that sliding, moonwalky stuff – then breaks into freestyle, helicoptering round like Fred Astaire in Converse trainers.
By the time we get to the Afrobeat song “Let the Groove Get In” (yes, Timberlake also does an Afrobeat song), Motorpoint Arena has turned into a sprawling dance party with every audience member facing a different direction, grooving, wearing a trilby and holding a trombone (OK, not quite).
Where do we go from here, I ask myself, scanning for the exit in panic. Is this not the “whole of music” in one evening? What’s the point in anyone doing another gig, ever? Will the pleasure never end? I glance at my set list and see that Timberlake ends with “Mirrors”, which, I recall, is a particularly good song. Time to get out.