If you thought Justin Timberweek ended with Friday night’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, you had another thing coming.
Last night, seven days after he appeared on Saturday Night Live as both the show’s host and musical guest, Mr. Suit and Tie seized SXSW by putting on one of the festival’s most anticipated shows of the week. And while Timberlake’s Myspace showcase was this year’s Party To Go To for many, only a lucky few actually got to attend.
That’s because the event went down at Austin’s Coppertank Events Center, a small downtown venue that reached its legal capacity of 800 people so quickly, it seemed like the event was actually sponsored by the city’s fire marshals. Of course, that only enhanced the intimacy of the concert. In the end, the strategy paid off, with both Timberlake and the audience feeding of the night’s once-in-a-lifetime vibes.
The thrills (and shrieks) began the moment he walked out on stage with an acoustic guitar and performed the Justified favorite “Like I Love You.” Wearing a fedora, blazer, and one of those tuxedo-print novelty t-shirts that you thought were only worn by characters in ’80s teen comedies, the singer’s smooth stage presence suggested that he wanted to do more than bring sexy back — he wanted to bring JT back.
After that, the 20/20 Experience artist ditched the guitar and dove headfirst into “My Love,” at which point he showed off his chops as a pure entertainer. Singing, smiling, dancing, gesticulating, glad-handing with the front-row crowd — the kid can do it all simultaneously. And, somehow, he does it while making eye contact with every individual in the room at once.
JT stuck to his back catalog as he transitioned to “Cry Me a River,” a song so beloved that the normally staid music journalist standing next to me couldn’t help but shout, “Get the f— out!” Visibly confident, Timberlake let the audience sing the hook for him as he pranced and danced around, using his famous footwork to traverse the small stage and work the crowd.
There was a point when the backing music on “Cry” morphed into the distinct Hit-Boy production from “N—-s in Paris,” which many took as a sign that Timberlake’s new musical BFF Jay-Z was about to saunter out as a special guest. Alas, the song soon reverted back to its original state, and the night went on Jay-free.
At this point, after playing more fan favorites than the crowd thought they’d get to hear, Timberlake finally asked the room, “Can I play some new s—?” After all, the man does have a new record to promote. So with the everyone’s consent, he did just that with “Pusher Love Girl,” taken from his imminent third album.
He switched back to the old-school again after that, delivering the crowd-pleasing 2003 single “Señorita.” “All right, we at a 100 now,” he declared, referring to the night becoming dangerously close to reaching peak Timberlake. In an attempt to settle everyone down, he put on his (proverbial) crooner hat and performed “That Girl,” another 20/20 Experience cut.
This somehow led to some interesting banter. Timberlake told a vague story about how he met some “bastard” working at a local ice-cream shop who tossed around scoops like “he thought he was in Cocktail” — or something like that. “I dunno, I’m on drugs,” he then explained to the audience, before adding, “Nah, I’m just being serious.”
He then hopped back on the guitar to deliver a stirring run through “What Comes Around Goes Around.” When the song got to the line, “I was ready to give you my name,” the entire club chimed in.
He continued to keep things vintage by performing “LoveStoned,” but the real way-back moment came when he covered INXS’s 1987 hit ” Need You Tonight,” a song that likely predates a healthy portion of the SXSW audience. (It must be a favorite; he did the same recently at a post Super Bowl concert on Feb. 3, and then again at his post-Grammys concert at the Palladium in Los Angeles.)
Then came “Suit and Tie,” sans Jay-Z (though Timberland did try and fill in some of Hov’s blanks, for better or for worse). Ironically, he took his blazer off for the song, proudly showing off his novelty tee. Clothing aside, though, the track sounded surprisingly good live, making the case that the new album’s lead single might be better and more dynamic than many had initially given it credit for.
Of course, no Justin Timberlake show would be complete without “SexyBack,” which closed out his set. It was an epic, rock-heavy rendition of the song, too, with the backing band headbanging along as JT moonwalked and strutted around the stage, mixing the swaggers of music’s two great MJs — Jackson and Jagger. “Popped a molly, I’m sweating, woo!” Timberlake shouted on the last leg of “SexyBack.” The line is lifted from Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything,” though after an electric show like that, it wasn’t hard to imagine there might’ve been some truth in it.
After he and his band finished up the last bars of “SexyBack,” they quickly left the stage. While the safety-concerned Austin fire marshal was surely grateful for JT’s no-encore adios, some (myself among them) were a little miffed that we didn’t get to hear more of his newer jams — particularly the excellent “Mirrors.” But in the end, some Timberlake is better than no Timberlake.
Want to watch last night’s show for yourself? Get a peek of him performing “Señorita.”