Where are the new global superstars? The record industry that promoted and sustained acts such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Prince doesn’t exist any more. And which of the younger generation of performers has got that kind of talent to spare? Stand up Justin Timberlake. Or perhaps “rise up” would be a more appropriate injunction, given the number of times that he and his amazing troupe of singers, dancers and musicians rose up from beneath the floor of the Hallam arena stage.
It was the opening night of the British leg of Timberlake’s Futuresex/Loveshow tour, and the 26-year-old singer from Memphis, Tennessee, paused between songs to recall that it was at this same Sheffield venue “on May 5, 2003”, that he played his first show as a solo act, during a hiatus from his career in the boyband ‘N Sync.
He has sold 13 million albums since then, but didn’t dwell on the subject. Indeed, he hardly stopped moving at all during an astonishingly busy and ambitious show that stretched well beyond two hours. Set in the round, the stage was designed like a giant propeller. The hub, which was encased at times in a diaphanous scrim, was just one area of activity. Simultaneously, all sorts of cameos took place on the four “blades” that stretched out almost to each of the four sides of the arena floor. By this method, the sense of long-distance alienation that this sort of show usually engenders was ingeniously short-circuited. No matter where you were in the venue, there was always something going on at close quarters. And such was the energy and industry of Timberlake’s performance, it never seemed long before the man himself was but a few metres away.
There was far too much going on for any one person to take in at a given moment. Lasers glimmered, images and artwork flashed across the scrims, dancers ducked and dived through trap doors, escarpments of musical equipment glided across the floor. It was as if the feverish jump-cutting techniques of modern video editing had been transferred to the concert stage. The variety and speed of the action was confusing initially, but always exhilarating. Timberlake led the formation dance moves with military precision during the song Futuresex/Lovesound, played a white guitar during Like I Love You, switched to keyboards for My Love and, of course, sang in a voice that combined a soulful tenor with an occasionally piercing falsetto — all of it accomplished faultlessly.
While some of the set pieces were precise to the point of being pneumatic, there were moments of comparative tenderness and spontaneity. And if there was still a slight dearth of the instantly recognisable hits that most stars of this stature can call on, well, Timberlake is still only on his second album.
But after a rousing support set from Timbaland, the producer and rapper, which was shrewdly embedded in the show where there might otherwise have been an intermission, Timberlake headed for the home straight with a triumphant string of favourites that included Summer Love, Cry Me A River and Sexyback, before bringing down the curtain on a spectacle that has raised the bar for arena-rock production.
Tour continues: tonight and tomorrow, Metro Arena, Newcastle; May 3-5, SECC, Glasgow; May 8-11, NIA, Birmingham; May 14-15, MEN Arena, Manchester