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Review: Justin Timberlake at American Airlines Center

Posted 1:10am on Thursday, Dec. 05, 2013

When is too much not enough?

When it’s Justin Timberlake.

The Grammy-winning pop superstar returned to North Texas, and the American Airlines Center, for his first show in six years Wednesday. Touring behind the double album The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake piled new atop old, flash atop finesse and 21st century sex appeal atop good old fashioned showmanship.

The performance, somehow sprawling yet tightly focused, stretched almost until midnight, a full two hours and 50 minutes (bifurcated by a 10-minute intermission) of expertly polished razzle dazzle, smartly deployed technology always in service of analog song and dance skills.

The stage was a character unto itself, a riot of hexagons serving as a honeycomb scrim capable of reflecting and refracting lasers and lights flickering above, beside and behind them. At one point, as has become predictable this late in the concert-going year, the foot of the stage detached and was wheeled to the back of the arena, carrying Timberlake and a handful of bandmates over the rabidly cheering audience.

It may be schtick, but he sells it like the consummate showman he is. Timberlake was backed by the “Tennessee Kids,” a band of some 15 musicians, as well as a sextet of dancers. The number of bodies ebbed and flowed throughout the evening, sometimes with only Timberlake on stage.

His break from the music business to focus on acting seems to have sharpened his presentation skills — there’s a confidence, a willingness to play with metaphorical fire that wasn’t evident six years ago. Part of that comes from maturity — Timberlake’s older now (he’ll turn 33 next month), and married — and part of that comes from his embrace of his inspirations.

Indeed, whole swaths of the second act were given over to little runs on classic songs he admires: Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel; Kool and the Gang’s Jungle Boogie; Michael Jackson’s Human Nature or Bell Biv Devoe’s Poison.

Comfort with the sonic touchstones of his life, so much so that an entire 20-minute chunk of the evening felt like a medley of someone else’s hits, illustrates Timberlake’s poise, a trait he always possessed but never quite displayed so freely before. Such an approach only serves to bolster his already formidable charisma; Timberlake is an entertainer, and one unafraid of doing whatever it takes to keep the party going.

The night just kept building, smoothly shifting between Experience material ( Take Back the Night; Suit & Tie; True Blood; TKO; Don’t Hold the Wall) and Timberlake’s earlier output ( My Love; LoveStoned; Cry Me a River; What Goes Around ... Comes Around).

Given how middling both halves of The 20/20 Experience were, it was startling to see a singer-songwriter deftly editing songs with a tendency to stretch well past the point of interest on record. Some tracks needed to breathe by necessity — Timberlake knows how to milk a moment — but often, he’d provide a taste of the tune and move on, eager to rile up the crowd with something else.

Timberlake, aided by his ace backing band, didn’t shy away from radically overhauling familiar songs — Rock Your Body and My Love, for example, were spun in fascinating new directions — and rather than bail for the beer line, the crowd hung with him.

The night was a wonderful paradox: too much and not enough. Although the sluggish spots were few, it was difficult not to feel mildly fatigued by the time Mirrors thundered into the arena, if only because of the sheer adrenaline rush of everything to that point.

As he demonstrated repeatedly Wednesday night, Justin Timberlake has matured into, perhaps, America’s most durable pop star.

His is a music cut from modern cloth but bearing traces of old-line entertainers before him. Such a formula doesn’t always translate on record, but live, it’s hard to argue Justin Timberlake is anything other than abundantly electrifying.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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