Justin Timberlake show disappoints

March 13, 2007


Aside from the fact that only the smallest fraction of the fan base is able to score tickets, the downside of the pre-tour, buzz-building club jaunt that many pop superstars do these days is that a successful gig in an intimate, fine-sounding venue can make the big, booming stadium show that follows seem like a major letdown.

When Justin Timberlake celebrated the release of his second solo album “Future Sex/Love Sounds” late last summer, his hot, sweaty, up-close-and-personal appearance at Chicago’s House of Blues amplified the best aspects of his now 3-million-selling dance-pop epic: its Timbaland-produced, genre-hopping invention; its relative class and sophistication (which are amplified by JT’s current fashion fixation on Sinatra in the ’40s) and its organic nature.

That show was live, not Memorex, and Timberlake concentrated on the music and gave it his all, despite an essentially limited voice, while leading a kicking 11-piece band.

On Monday, the 26-year-old singer brought the big band, the retro duds and sexy back again when his major national tour pulled into a sold-out Allstate Arena, the first of a two-night stand. He also brought a bevy of dancers, some fancy scrims that served as video projection screens and a high-tech, in-the-round stage set in the middle of the floor.

But something was missing.

Timberlake tried to retain some of the smaller, more genuine musical gestures from the club tour. Most notably, he delivered several songs while strumming an acoustic guitar or sitting behind an upright piano. (The best of these: the oddly psychedelic/symphonic suite, “What Goes Around.”) But too much of the time, he was playing peek-a-boo behind the scrims, building anticipation for the moments when he’d run around his round stage, allowing his legions of mostly female fans to admire him.

In the cavernous expanse of the enormodome, the quietest and most complex songs from the last album were lost in the backwash of booming bass, and much of the rest of the set just seemed like the backing track for a sublimely professional, intricately pre-programmed and pristinely choreographed act.

Given that it wasn’t all that long ago that the JT was a teenager flying over Soldier Field on a guide wire as part of ’N Sync’s super-spectacle, I suppose the more mature theatrics Monday were an improvement. But the two-hours-plus show still seemed overblown at some points and deflated at others — not the least of which was Timbaland’s dragging, cliche-ridden 20-minute solo behind the wheels of steel.

On the new album and at the House of Blues, Timberlake proved that he is capable of much better, and I’m fan enough to expect it from him.

Opening the show was the one-time realest of any of the teen-pop divas, Pink. But the sad detour that the former Alecia Moore took toward bloated self-importance on her fourth album “I’m Not Dead” continued on stage.

Flanked by two female dancers and dressed to match in prime street-walker/“Coyote Ugly” couture, Pink — who used to be this genre’s feminist role model — was at her best when she was rocking hardest, deriding “Stupid Girls” or just trying to get the party started. But dreadful schlock such as her weepy broken-home ballads and the oh-so earnest acoustic protest song “Dear Mr. President” were simply unbearable.

The literal high point of the set came when Pink took a page from Cirque du Soleil and acrobatically twirled high above the crowd on a twisting pink ribbon. Alas, like so much of the night, it had nothing whatsoever to do with good music.