“Cry Me A River” shouldn’t be a song you can headbang to, but Justin Timberlake’s not really in the business of shouldn’ts. Last night at MySpace’s SXSW headquarters in Austin, pop’s reigning maestro fulfilled dreams and flipped scripts over the course of an hour-long set that found him dishing out delightful renditions of some of his biggest tracks from Justified, Futuresex/Lovesounds and those off The 20/20 Experience certainly set to join his growing pantheon. It was a special, intimate gig, and Timberlake milked every hook and cranny, relishing each opportunity to explore just where exactly he could take his music – like the bombastic blasts of guitar fury that closed out his scorned-love R&B masterpiece.
It came out of nowhere, but then again it didn’t. Following a DJ set from ?uestlove – who cut up hip-hop, soul and R&B classics with the touch of a nimble finger he’d tongue with care before touching the wax – Timberlake emerged to cheers, shrieks and the wails of a guitar you’d expect to hear in a heavy metal parking lot circa 1987. Strapped with a guitar, hat sitting comfortably atop his head, all dressed up in a blazer and too-cool tuxedo tee, JT got the crowd moving and shaking appropriately enough with his first ever solo single, “Like I Love You.”
The hit parade continued with “My Love” and “Cry Me A River” with hardly a breath in between. Timberlake carried each verse, but gleefully stepped back from the mic during the choruses, conducting the crowd on the hooks they knew all too well. Fresh hard rock tinges aside (to say nothing of his cheeky checking of Juicy J’s “Bands A Make Her Dance” and Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Ni**as In Paris”‘ during “Cry Me A River”), the songs never lost their original flair, perhaps a testament to the distinct voice filling the room. On 20/20 opener “Pusher Love Girl,” he alternated as effortlessly as ever between his suave alto and candied falsetto, the lush cut fitting right at home in that opening suite.
Gauging energy levels after each song, Timberlake declared that 100% had been reached before he launched into another 20/20 cut, “That Girl,” shining in particular when the instruments cut out and a string of quick vocal runs filled the spaces left by his back-up singers’ warm hums. Impeccable vocal precision has always been one of Timberlake’s best weapons, and on a rather stripped down version of “What Goes Around . . . / . . . Comes Around,” he stopped on a dime following the line “Funny thing about that is, I was ready to give you my name,” snatching the air out of the room. He did trip over his words once, while telling a story about some particularly crafty ice cream scoopers who served him a chocolate chip cone a la Cocktail on Congress – “I’m on drugs,” he cracked after the flub. A beat: “Nah . . . I’m just being serious.” (Looks like he’s picked up a few things from Saturday Night Live.)
Following an arena-sized rendition of “Futuresex/Lovesound,” Timberlake busted out a punched-up cover of INXS’s “Need You Tonight,” shuffling about the stage with a smooth sterling pop to every leg bend or shoulder dip. Though the crowd didn’t know it, JT was closing in on the final lap, as he dropped the blazer and the woozy horn stabs of “Suit & Tie.” While 20/20 Experience‘s first single has been a bit divisive (to people like Mr. West, and this reporter), live it is a completely different beast: an undeniably indelible one that makes you wish Timberlake would show up in person to perform the track at every wedding/prom/bar-mitzvah where you’ll undoubtedly hear it played till the end of time.
“Is it St. Paddy’s Day, yet?” Timberlake asked, holding a thick glass of Guinness before a rather peculiar synth heavy intro blasted from the speakers. Something almost completely unrecognizable, until the entire room erupted at four little words, “I’m bringing sexy back.” Snatching the mic off its stand, Timberlake bounded across the stage, traded dance moves for pin-prick riffs with his guitarist, and even tossed in a few “Popped a molly I’m sweatin”‘s for good measure, reminding us, again, why that long wait for his return was so excruciating. And why it’s such a poptimistic relief to have him back.