The idea was for Timbaland to warm up the crowd, but the super-producer’s hour-and-a-half set on Friday night at Denver’s packed Ogden Theatre was so boisterous, intimate, funky and funny that the headliner, singer Chris Cornell (Timbo’s latest client), never really had a chance. Barely moving more than a raised eyebrow, Timbaland conducted his hot seven-piece band from James Brown-style groove workouts like “Oh Timbaland” to his underrated house-party anthem “Bounce.”
Barely singing, rapping or even speaking much throughout the songs, the deadpan Timbaland’s main job was to be a presence, holding the crowd’s attention so his super-tight “junkyard band” could do most of the work. Although he tossed out a few songs from his album due in February, he mostly stuck to last year’s Shock Value, including the closing “Throw It On Me,” which recalled OutKast’s propulsive “B.O.B.” and couldn’t help but transition into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Expectations were therefore high for Cornell, the former Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman. For a few minutes between sets, the crowd seemed especially pumped up for him. Would he perform with Timbaland’s band? Would the singer known for punk and metal anthems turn into a funk balladeer? Would he do the splits? Unfortunately, most of Timbaland’s band packed up their gear and walked off the stage.
That was an omen. Cornell’s new sound had the feel of ’80s Peter Gabriel, with two metal guitarists roaming the stage and a drummer playing rigid house-music beats as two keyboardists created a swirling, soothing synth sound to match his high-pitched vocals. Cornell exclusively did songs from Scream, opening with “Part of Me,” which set a mild hip-hop rhythm to the chorus “That bitch ain’t a part of me.”
Fortunately, Cornell has enough sex appeal to hold just about any crowd’s attention. He and his low-slung jeans admirably redeemed the new material until the very end. At that point, he did his two best songs, “Watch Out,” a hip-hop-spiced rock anthem that came close to matching Timbaland’s energy, and a stripped-down ballad about loneliness called “Two Drink Minimum.” But if this was a battle of the bands, it was no contest.