"Is it as hot out there as it is up here?" asked Justin Timberlake at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom Thursday night. "I'm getting too old for this shit. I don't get to play these types of shows often."
The "type of show" in question most likely referenced the intimacy of the 2,200-person venue rather than the corporate sponsorship of an event subtitled "Citi/AAdvantage & MasterCard Priceless Access." Still, the two-hour, 20-song set was the opposite of many performers' phoned-in corporate gigs, as Timberlake, more accustomed to stadiums that ballrooms, took full advantage of the smaller confines. Upon seeing a girl with a sign noting how long she waited to get tickets to the show, the singer playfully asked, "You slept on the street to get in the front row? What is wrong with you?"
Backed, as usual, by his 10-piece band, the Tennessee Kids, Timberlake performed a career-spanning set, playing guitar, piano and keyboard and throwing in enough structural changes to satiate fans familiar with his relatively small discography. The jittery synths and warped percussion of the Timbaland-produced "My Love" became a jazzy torch song, while Jay Z's "Holy Grail" found the band moving to the foreground, turning the track into a hard rock song – or as close to hard rock as Justin Timberlake will get. "What Goes Around... Comes Around" opened with just Timberlake on acoustic guitar, while "Until the End of Time" was turned into a piano ballad, the multi-instrumentalist telling the crowd: "If you came single to the show tonight, look around. I can't think of a better time than now."
As corporate gigs go, though, there was even a touch of subversion. Timberlake's not beating Ozzy for stories (publicly at least), but the lines "I smelled drugs earlier; I wonder where they came from" and "I think I have a contact high from somebody smoking weed in the crowd" probably weren't in the Citi/AA/MasterCard marketing plan. Here are five things we learned from JT's intimate show.
1. His 'N Sync Love Still Runs Deep
Former 'N Sync singer Joey Fatone occupied a box seat throughout the show, dancing and nodding his head to many of his former bandmate's tracks. During "Suit and Tie," Fatone hopped on stage, eschewing the microphone to dance among Timberlake's band. "Give it up for the fat one!," joked Timberlake. We're still waiting to see that group text, though, guys.
2. He's Either the Shrewdest Corporate Shill or Most Clever Marketer in Music
The concert was co-sponsored by MasterCard, who encouraged fans to tweet pictures of themselves at the show with a specially-created hashtag. Between "TKO" and "Summer Love," one fan threw a pair of panties on stage, nearly hitting the singer. "This is a MasterCard-sponsored event," Timberlake told the crowd. "And this will not get you any more priceless points."
3. He's Not Afraid to Cover Obscure Songs
"I'm going to do something unorthodox," Timberlake told the crowd toward the end of the set. "Chances are you don't know this one." He was right on both accounts. With only an acoustic guitar, the singer launched into a cover of Ray LaMontagne's "Jolene," a song from the singer-songwriter's 2004 debut album Trouble. Singing to a celebratory crowd about finding yourself "face down in the ditch/booze on my hair/blood on my lips" was a ballsy, if not particularly well received, move. This was a crowd that didn't want to buy a "hard pack of cigarettes in the early morning rain," as LaMontagne's protagonist does, but the song showcased Timberlake's versatility past the set's mostly uptempo tracks.
4. His Show's Hip-Hop Influence Is Getting Stronger
During his Legends of the Summer tour with Jay Z, Timberlake played the role of Jay's racist cop from "99 Problems," sang the hook from Juicy J's "Bandz a Make Her Dance" and had his band break into four bars of Kanye West's "New Slaves" during "Cry Me a River." Last night, "Cry Me a River" featured the bridge from Jay's "Tom Ford," and "SexyBack" included a few lines from "FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt." Later, Timberlake pulled from Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three's 1984 classic "The Roof Is on Fire" to further inflame the crowd.
5. He Loves Frank Sinatra
At Yankee Stadium for Legends of the Summer, Timberlake broke into a cover of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" right before the duo performed "Empire State of Mind." It was all Timberlake, but it also felt like a nod to Jay Z's umpteenth attempt to remind you he's become the Jersey crooner's rightful heir. Timberlake repeated the cover last night, leading the crowd in a big band-inspired singalong that united teenagers with the olds, a category that here included everyone over 30. This wasn't the first Chairman of the Board reference of the night: Right before the show, Sinatra's "My Way" pumped out of the speakers.