x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Abu Dhabi is treated to the Justin Timberlake experience

Justin Timberlake's du Arena show featured a mixture of electrifying and fluffy hits.

Justin Timberlake performs at Abu Dhabi's du Arena during his 20/20 Experience tour. Christopher Pike / The National / May 23, 2014
Justin Timberlake performs at Abu Dhabi's du Arena during his 20/20 Experience tour. Christopher Pike / The National / May 23, 2014

Abu Dhabi shares a special connection with Justin Timberlake. At a time when the capital was bereft of pop concerts, Timberlake was one of the first international music superstars to tour Abu Dhabi in 2007. With fans packing the Emirates Palace gardens for that performance, the capital announced itself as not merely a viable destination for modern pop tours but a trusty stop in Timberlake’s latest jaunt.

The 33-year-old spoke about that first tour in his comeback show at the du Arena on Friday night.

“I see some familiar faces,” joked Timberlake, who – given the night’s high humidity – jettisoned the Tom Ford suits for a black emblazoned shirt and baggy shorts. “I am a little older though.”

Indeed, things have changed since Timberlake’s last performance. Where his 2007 tour saw him going from teenage heart-throb to contemporary artist, the Timberlake that emerged on Friday’s show is comfortable in his present status as the world’s leading pop star.

Much of that acclaim lies in the release of last year’s opus, the double album The 20/20 Experience. While 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds was about the dark side of love, The 20/20 Experience is a brighter, more experimental, affair, focusing on the redemptive nature of relationships.

The theme was echoed in the show’s visuals: nearly all were abstract representations of coupledom, from interlocking chains to moody and intimate lights.

The album’s ultra-dense sounds needed an intense effort to replicate live. Fortunately, a star like Timberlake can afford a mini-orchestra of a backing band – The Tennessee Kids – with more than a dozen members, including four vocalists and a three-piece horn section.

Descending the stairs to almost combustible shrieks from the crowd, Timberlake and band launched into the opener Pusher Love Girl. It was a brave move – the track is almost fully sung in a deft falsetto and Timberlake pulled it off with aplomb.

The Tennessee Kids also didn’t mess around: the burbling keys mixed with the rising horns created some seriously lush soundscapes.

The follow up Rock Your Body introduced the six backing dancers. Those choreographed sets with Timberlake proved the singer didn’t ditch the dance classes post 'N Sync.

The pensive FutureSex/LoveSound had Timberlake’s breathy croon hovering over a stalking beat that sounded like a dystopian version of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust.

Truly warmed up, the crowd made their view felt in Timberlake’s first solo hit Like I Love You. The combination of stuttering guitars and funky drums had the audience jumping along, eliciting a big grin from the star.

The glaring 20/20 Experience misfire TKO received a welcome rebooting, with the synths souped up and a stronger vocal arrangement.

Unfortunately, the energy drastically dropped in the second half. While the first was dark and electrifying – courtesy of the futuristic-sounding new material – what followed was alarmingly fluffy, with classic covers and heavy on choreographed dances. It was like going back in a time warp to the 2003 Justified tour, where a young Timberlake was trying to make his mark on the live circuit.

There were fillers, such as covers of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel and the Michael Jackson tribute of Human Nature and The Jacksons’s Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground). All were done adeptly, but it really took the wind out the sails of what was until then a brilliantly paced show.

The energy picked up when the new material returned: the show ended with the killer trio of Suit & Tie, the boisterous horn-filled SexyBack and the anthemic Mirrors, which came with U2-style chiming guitars.

A proven risk-taker, it’s tantalising to speculate on Timberlake’s next musical move. Hopefully we don’t have to wait another seven years to see it on stage.

sasaeed@thenational.ae