Being a live music photographer, I’ve been to a few concerts in my day. I’ve sat through the oh-so-edgy “I don’t care about my fans or this performance, the music is just for me” artists, the mechanical, overly-choreographed performers, and everyone in-between, so getting the call to photograph the 20/20 Experience World Tour as it rolled through Seattle, I figured there wouldn’t be much in the chamber as far as big-act surprises go.
I was wrong.
There is a valid argument to be made that Justin Timberlake is the artist of our generation. Ignore the fact that he is the only surviving member of the boy band era that can still sell out arenas (often on back-to-back nights), that he’s had a successful film career in fairly diverse roles, and that he put out two albums in 2013, one of which was the highest selling album of the year. This guy came out in front of a sold out crowd, performed 30 songs without missing a note (literally), the majority of which required elaborate choreography harkening back to his boy band days. Not only was it an electrifying performance, but it was easily the best I’ve seen. Ever.
The set was massive. A 40-foot-tall, futuristic honeycomb background met another 40 feet of it that hung over the stage (and our heads), all of which were used to project the intricate and perfectly choreographed visuals that accompanied the performance, including the sultry visuals of “Tunnel Vision” to the creepy aesthetic of “True Blood” and “Murder.” The multi-leveled stage hid a handful of rising platforms, allowing the dancers, and entire band (The Tennessee Kids) to appear and disappear in seconds. Oh, and part of the stage suddenly raised 20 feet in the air and rolled across the KeyArena floor, but more on that later.
From the first stringed notes of “Pusher Love Girl” until the final, climactic moment of “Mirrors,” Justin was on fire. Facing the crowd, he was all eye contact and sex appeal. Turned around, facing his band, he was laughing and jesting with them, seeming to genuinely enjoy every second of his performance. Sometimes he picked up a guitar (“Drink You Away” and a lovely acoustic rendition of “What Goes Around”), sometimes he stood at an electric piano (“Señorita”) and sometimes sat at a Baby Grand (“Until the End of Time”), but most of the time he danced.
The set list was eclectic, though heavily featured both 20/20 Experience albums. In the three-hour performance, Justin performed nearly every track from those albums, while sprinkling in all the favorites and radio hits (“Rock Your Body,” “Like I Love You,” “Summer Love,”, “SexyBack,”), guest spots (“Holy Grail”), and covers (Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel,” Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison”).
Such a set required an intermission, of course, though it was under ten minutes long, and when JT and the Tennessee Kids returned to the stage they were more energetic than ever. Just when the crowd had settled in for some more hits and dancing (in the aisles, everywhere. It was almost impossible to get to your seats.), The 20/20 Experience (Part 1)‘s “Let the Groove In” fired up, and just like that, half of the stage was raising 20 feet in the air. And then it was rolling across the entire KeyArena floor over the heads of the floor ticket holders, all while Justin and his dancers continued with their tight choreography. When the rolling stage reached the far side of the Arena, a staircase raised to meet it so the whole crew could get down to a lit-up bar (that they danced on) and another smaller stage in the midst of the fans. Short of Blink-182’s flying, spinning drum podium, I haven’t seen anything like it. After performing the majority of the second half of the set from the far side of the arena, everyone hopped back on the mobile stage and rolled back to join the rest of the band at the front, dancers, trumpet players, and Justin, himself dangling off the edge and over the crowd.
“Show Stopping” is probably a term I should use here, but it would be lacking. The visuals were next level. The vocal performance was as good as he’s ever sounded. The choreography and band were perfect. THE STAGE ROLLED ACROSS THE ARENA FLOOR OVER EVERYONE’S HEADS!!!!! The only thing that could make the show better would be a little site-specific personal touches, and those abounded as well. Before “Pusher Love Girl”‘s instrumental started, all of five minutes into the show, Justin gave a shout out to the 12th Man, inciting quite the roar from the crowd. Later, between songs, he yelled “SEA!”, to which the crowd responded with a thunderous “HAWKS!”. He then laughed, mentioned how he’d always wanted to do that and saying “That’s the shit right there”. Finally, while dancing on the bar top (after riding the ROLLING STAGE) he lifted a shot in the air and toasted the 12th Man. Yeah, Justin was very aware how big a weekend this was for Seattle, and definitely did what had to be done to turn the crowd up the rest of the way to 11 (or would it be 12?).
So yes, I loved the show. I’ve seen the big acts robot their way through sold-out performances, and I’ve seen the indie kids act like they don’t need their fans, and Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids hit that sweet spot in performance, production, and genuine excitement for their art that made each fan in attendance feel like such a talented artist is thankful for them. For an act as big as JT in a venue like The Key, that’s no small accomplishment.