Fire Woods 

Even when overindulging in his sooty Man of the Woods material, Justin Timberlake captivated the audience Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

click to enlarge Justin Timberlake rallies the crowd Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena. - ALEXA ACE
  • Alexa Ace
  • Justin Timberlake rallies the crowd Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

When he released his long-awaited 2013 album The 20/20 Experience, a lush and expansive collection that furthered his bona fides as a deserving star, Justin Timberlake was, as Pitchfork noted in its review, auditioning for an open position: King of Pop. His Saturday concert at Chesapeake Energy Arena in support of his most recent album, Man of the Woods, proved that Timberlake’s campaign for the job is still in full swing, even as he stood steadfastly behind a critically maligned and commercially disappointing collection of songs.

Following a set by Toronto singer-songwriter Francesco Yates that heavily mined late-’80s/early ‘90s New Jack Swing and featured Yates playing a replica Prince guitar on a cover of “Diamonds and Pearls,” Timberlake and his massive stage band, The Tennessee Kids, bounded onto the stage to Man of the Woods’ first single, “Filthy.” A glitchy funk workout, the song served as a rallying cry for a man and his band as they plunged headlong into a 22-song set with few breaks.

Throughout the show, whether he rocked a FutureSex/LoveSounds standout like “My Love” or tried to sell “Supplies,” Timberlake took full advantage of an expansive stage design that snaked throughout the ’Peake, ensuring that even fans sitting in what is typically the backstage area got prime views. In keeping with the theme, the stage was dotted with four “trees” and the circular screen hanging over center court superimposed live shots of Timberlake and company’s enthusiastic choreography with high-lonesome forest and mountain imagery. Sartorially, Timberlake eschewed the “Suit & Tie” aesthetic of 20/20 in favor of fast-casual chilling garb, rocking Russell Westbrooks, T-shirts and untucked flannel. While a Timberlake concert is an exercise in tightly choreographed performances and a setlist that rarely changes from show to show, Timberlake excels in making an assiduously planned performance feel like a massive hangout.

Though the audience was mostly there to hear undeniable jams from the past like “SexyBack” and “Rock Your Body,” the crowd kept up its enthusiasm during Man of the Woods material, which comprised nearly half of the evening’s setlist. As a point of pride, it is understandable that Timberlake would continue to stand by the material a year after its commercial and critical drubbing, but not to the degree he did Saturday night. Other than the gorgeous, Bee Gees-inflected big-sky disco of “Montana,” the Man of the Woods material played like something to get through rather than music that belongs in Timberlake’s canon. It’s hard to imagine when Timberlake inevitably veers back toward louche urbanism on future tours that he will bring with him “Supplies,” a grossly red-pilled paean to survivalism that will always play like the aural equivalent to a MAGA hat. Simulated campfires and rustic overtures to hardscrabble country fueled by acoustic guitar and 808s do not suit Timberlake quite as well as his documented love of Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson or classic Prince. There were enough crowd-pleasers like “Mirrors” sprinkled in the mix, but the set needed an undeniable killer like his 20/20 Jacko/Fela Kuti workout “Let the Groove In” for the show to truly hit stratospheric levels.

But beyond the remote Woods, Timberlake proved an ingratiating and tireless performer, singing and moving at peak form and rallying the audience with set-closing “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” with its entreaties to “Dance, dance, dance, dance.” Up to the end, Timberlake captivated the near-capacity crowd, and dance they did.
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