If the ridiculous Robin Thicke, author of last year’s “rapey” hit single “Blurred Lines”, were to aspire to discover how to be sexy but not sleazy, how to make music that effortlessly crosses the boundaries between black and white, between R&B and pop, how to present a cracking live show, and how, in general, to be a thoroughly cool chap, he would do well to make a special study of Justin Timberlake. The two men occupy similar places on the musical/demographic spectrum, but the gulf in class (in all senses) between them is vast. Unlike the cheesy Thicke, Timberlake comes across on stage as a genuine guy, a man who loves his music and relishes performing, and it was this infectious enthusiasm that carried itself to all corners of an O2 Arena that too often can seem like a vast temple devoted to the cult of the in-seat cup-holder.
This was the first of two nights in London for the Memphis-born singer; tickets were expensive, some more than £100, but Timberlake’s people hadn’t stinted on the budget. This was a show that gave a good return on investment, and which, crucially, unlike too many of today’s slimline roadshows, featured a really substantial band. As the show built up a head of steam, the musicians simmered and cooked and occasionally reached a rolling boil. Timberlake’s high-register voice, meanwhile, was sweet and true, his movement slinky and languid.
Equally impressive was a new development in the super-competitive business of arena pop: a raised, wheeled platform that covered the width of the ground floor seating area and which at one point progressed the length of the arena at a stately Thunderbirds pace, carrying the star of the show and his backing singers over the heads of the crowd and delivering them to a smaller satellite stage at the rear of the hall. Cool.
Tune-wise, the highlights were the insistent “Like I Love You” (though slightly overblown: this is a song that’s best stripped down), a fabulously groovy “TKO”, a tribute to his fellow Deep Southerner Elvis in the shape of “Heartbreak Hotel”, the epic, dramatic “Cry Me a River” and an exuberant “Suit & Tie”. Momentum was allowed to slip at times, especially during a needless piano-ballad interlude, and the show would benefit from some rap input. But as the evening reached the final straight, the band kicked up a gear, the crowd became feverishly excitable, and there was a palpable sense of ensemble among the musicians, singers and dancers on stage. Simply: it was fun.