The once-in-a-lifetime club tour is always a good look: 2000 ticketholders here or there isn’t going to hurt your arena draw six months down the line, corporate sponsors are more than happy to underwrite the tour bus, the star gets to “reconnect” with “the fans,” and press hacks like yours truly get to write leads about how deep down, behind all the glaciers of hype and the tundras of cash, there’s a dude who just wants to lead a real band, man. And what’s more -- to the chagrin of people who would like pop to behave strictly as cynical illusion, like the hegemonic evil empire to their grassroots rebel alliance -- it almost always works. What makes pop disappointing and cancerous is not so much the nature but the scale of the enterprise: phsyical distance, sheer numbers, the demands placed on art in the age of infinite digital reproduction. Sure, club gigs by superstars are inherently contrived, exclusionary, economically unsustainable. They also feel more human because they are more human. Duh.
So yes, Virginia, Justin Timberlake’s show at Avalon on Saturday night was everything you’d want from your stadium-star-in-the-club gig: reasonably intimate, loosely choreographed, light on the sales pitch. Even those of us who’ll never forgive Justin for throwing Janet under the bus are having a hard time denying dude the fast lane to critical adoration. Granted, this comes from the mouth of someone who paid $2.99 for the “Sexy Back” ringtone even though he could’ve had Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” for free, who is a certified member of the “Atlanctic Records, T.I. Clearance” internerd fan club, and who’s already sold on his forthcoming Futuresex/Lovesounds (Jive, officially out September 12, helpfully leaked on the web Friday afternoon). Unlike most of you, I didn’t need to be convinced. If you did, you wouldn’t have been there.
But this is a guy who knows he’s got heads to turn. So yeah, that setlist isn’t a typo: he flipped “Like I Love You” (it’s the one Mike Patton and Dilinger Escape Plan covered, remember?) into a Nirvana mashup – I toss it out there tangentially, since that was the way they played it, but even in the moment it didn’t feel like the throwaway it should’ve been. On Saturday, people – girls, most of them -- waited quietly for an hour and a half for the guy to show up and then lost their shit in an unnerving way. In the shadows you could make out large bodies piling in behind the instruments – too many, it seemed even in darkness, for the size of the stage. Piling an 11-piece arena band onto a stage fit for five isn’t exactly unprecedented – hell, Gnarls Barkley did it last month – but Justin’s band feels bigger, because they are: his backing singers are huger than most stars’ bouncers. With the lights thrown up they’re stacked on top of each other, dressed in speakeasy charcoals and rakishly-angled fedoras. And the audience makes an asymmetrical noise, a surge of voice and movement along multiple vectors – it reads like panic and confusion, like someone just got shot. And then he’s there, the only white guy on the football team, dressed in a tie, gray vest, blood-red fedora. The band is angling from a Halloween theme into “Cry Me a River,” the guitarists pushing it into goth. He cues the band to freeze, and they do, in mid-gesture, dead silent, still life-ish, shrouded in red light. Time stands still, and he steps through it to the lip of the stage. They hold the pose, impossibly, for 15 seconds, 20 – the drummers with sticks stuck in midswipe, the singers in mid-howl -- so that you’re blinking away the shadows and trying to catch someone twitching. And then Timberlake’s waving them back in, smiling as they bring it up, crunching a chord into heavy metal. JT picks the hat up an inch off his head, sets it back down, slides on rollers – not his feet, couldn’t be – to his left, flashes double-barrelled middle fingers at the crowd.