We’re all desperate to find the next MJ. LeBron James gets it, and so does Justin Timberlake. One night before he performs in the room where James pursues the legend of Michael Jordan, Timberlake was not shy about invoking the memory of pop deity Michael Jackson.
About three-quarters of the way through his 20/20 Experience World Tour concert in Sunrise Tuesday night, singer-dancer-actor Timberlake stood astride a remarkable floating stage in the middle of a packed BB&T Center and swung into a gentle reading of the ballad “Human Nature,” from Jackson’s iconic 1982 “Thriller” album.
It was an affectionate and respectful moment, a shout-out from one multitalented former child star to another, and was greeted with warm applause, which was soon crushed by the hysteria that swallowed the segue into the Timberlake hit “What Goes Around (Comes Back Around).”
Judging by the response Tuesday night, which no doubt will be repeated Wednesday at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, there clearly is a hunger out there for a personable singer and musician with a particular combination of dance physicality, fashion sense and sexy authenticity. It’s an elusive market, but one that Timberlake seems to have cornered.
Taking the stage just after 9 p.m. with a brassy version of the recent hit “Pusher Love Girl,” the Grammy winner appeared in backlit silhouette, surrounded by black-and-white, big-band-era imagery, before the lights came up to reveal Timberlake in an immaculate tuxedo, equal parts Jay Z and Gene Kelly.
His band rose from underneath the floor: two full drum kits, two keyboards, two guitars and a bass; out front, two tumpet players, a trombonist, a saxophonist and four singers stood behind jazz-era podiums marked with an elegant “JT.” Timberlake eschewed the wireless microphone for one perched nostalgically atop a silver stand, the better to swivel his hips with.
The crowd was a frothy mix of corporate types and clients (many in JT’s Lounge, a walled-off section cut into the back of the floor seats), tweens and trophy wives, age-defying grandpas and precariously heeled Girls Night Outters, and guys along for the ride.
Sebastien Huberdeau, 23, was there with his sister and two young female cousins. The Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, resident seemed more intent on finding WiFi reception inside the arena so he could see how his brother, Florida Panthers star Jonathan Huberdeau, was faring against the Boston Bruins Tuesday night.
“They are in love,” said Huberdeau, still working on his English, with a nod to his companions.
The performance could not have hurt Timberlake’s standing with the ladies.
Moving stylishly across a spare stage, periodically joined by six tuxedoed dancers, Timberlake ran through all of his big hits during a two-and-a-half-hour show , with the pre-intermission set highlighted by an incendiary version of “Rock Your Body,” and a creative coupling of “Holy Grail” and “Cry Me a River,” which ended in a forceful tangle of horns, drums and rock guitar.
After a 10-minute intermission, Timberlake reappeared in a relaxed blue sportcoat, black slacks, black sneakers, quickly cranking his way into the fiery “Only When I Walk Away.”
Shortly after the shrieks for the pulsating come-on “Senorita” died down, another star of the show made its presence known: A length of the stage some 6 feet deep rose about 20 feet in the air and, on wheeled columns on either side, began to roll out over the stunned audience on the floor, carrying Timberlake and band with it as they ripped through a salsafied version of “Let the Groove Get In.”
After throwing a clutch of Mardi Gras beads from steps rising on each side of the slow-moving wing, Tennessee-native Timberlake, armed with an acoustic guitar, offered a doo-wop version of “That Girl” and an earnest take on Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” that was regrettably devoid of the sexy menace of the original.
Perhaps he was saving it for the final numbers of the night, a murderer’s row of pop firepower including the urban anthem “Take Back the Night,” the swaggering funk of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” the perfect pop bauble “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe, his own sexy fashion statement “Suit & Tie” and two contrasting encores: “SexyBack” and the recent hit “Mirrors.”
If Timberlake’s stage banter was surprisingly ordinary (given his entertaining appearances on “Saturday Night Live”), he more than compensated with energy and showmanship.
“Wow,” Huberdeau said afterward, searching for words. “He is very good.”