Review: Timberlake is the ‘Man’ at Little Caesars Arena
Detroit — Justin Timberlake brought two hours of pure entertainment and superstar showmanship muscle to a packed Little Caesars Arena on Monday night.
The pop singer’s stop on his Man of the Woods tour was an engrossing spectacle that turned the arena into his personal wooded playland; no concert artist has come close to using Little Caesars Arena’s space this creatively, save for perhaps Lady Gaga.
The production was spread out in-the-round, and Timberlake held court on a stage whose long catwalk zig-zagged across the arena floor, with a circular stage in the center. Throughout the night, images of pine trees and other forest landscapes were beamed onto scrims that hung from the arena rafters, and at one point Timberlake and his backup singers sang songs around a campfire that arose from the stage floor. It’s not easy to bring an outdoorsy vibe into a modern sports arena, but Timberlake came awfully close to making Little Caesars Arena feel like a campground.
Of course, Timberlake’s version of the outdoors also has a full bar, a disco dance floor and enough laser power to fuel a science fiction epic. He also came armed with two dozen arena-shaking, body-rocking anthems, time-tested hits from his formidable back catalog and songs from his two-month old “Man of the Woods” that were given crisp presentation in this lively setting.
Timberlake didn’t do it alone. He didn’t have to. He was aided by his spirited 15-member Tennessee Kids backing band, who brought vigorous pizzazz to the performance. He was also joined intermittently by up to six backup dancers, meaning he had up to 21 people on stage with him at any given moment.
But Timberlake is smart enough, and seasoned enough, to know that he need not do all the heavy lifting himself. The Tennessee Kids became his own E-Street band — there were times, especially when the band turned around and played to the fans at the back of the arena, that the show recalled a Bruce Springsteen concert — mixed with Bruno Mars’ Hooligans. They surrounded Timberlake, lifted him up, and allowed him to be the star without making him shoulder the weight of the entire show.
For his part, Timberlake was cool and commanding, taking the stage in a jean jacket and track pants and still looking like he owned the place. Opener “Filthy,” whose wobbly funk made for an ill-fit at radio, sounded right at home in the large-scale setting, and segued cleanly into “Midnight Summer Jam,” also from “Man of the Woods.”
Those were two of nine songs from the new album worked into the set, and none were slogs. A highlight came late in the set when an acoustic presentation of “What Goes Around... Comes Around” flowed directly into the new album’s “Say Something,” Timberlake’s potent duet with Chris Stapleton.
Other songs were given fresh touches; the instrumental spaceship funk of “My Love” was laid underneath Eminem’s a capella “Forgot About Dre” verse when Timberlake busted out his sampler and paid tribute to Slim Shady, and the bass-rattling drums from Clipse’s “Grindin’” gave a new forcefulness to “Summer Love.”
There was barely any downtime during the set, but Timberlake and crew did find time to toast a woman in the crowd holding up a sign announcing her pregnancy; the round of shots he and his band slammed led into a punchy version of “Drink You Away.” Later, the band gathered around a small campfire on the catwalk near the back of the arena and performed the new album’s lullaby “Flannel” along with brief covers of songs by Fleetwood Mac (“Dreams”), Lauryn Hill (“Ex-Factor”), the Beatles (“Come Together”) and John Denver (“Thank God I’m a Country Boy”).
Is Timberlake a country boy? “Man of the Woods” was misunderstood in the lead-up to its release as his bid for country crossover, when it really is a continuation of his love affair with future-funk pop-R&B. So it was nothing for him to transition from “Montana” to “Summer Love,” or from “Rock Your Body” — performed on a disco floor that seemed to appear from out of nowhere in the VIP general admission section — to “Supplies,” which he did while circling the bar in the VIP area. (The VIP ticketholders got their money’s worth, suffice to say.)
The evening closed, like Timberlake’s under-heralded set from this year’s Super Bowl halftime, with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” the upbeat earworm Timberlake contributed to the soundtrack to “Trolls.” As he and his crew bopped off stage exactly two hours after taking it, Timberlake left the crowd dancing in their seats and in the aisles, the way a good party hose should. There was no stopping the feeling, and no fighting it, either.