SXSW: Justin Timberlake Brings Down the House at Festival Closer

Justin Timberlake SXSW 2013 live P
Jason Kempin / Getty Images Collection

The former boy bander delivers a nonstop hit parade headlining a MySpace secret show at South By Southwest.

When an announcer prefaces a pop artist’s impending club performance with a grand statement such as, “He’s the biggest star in the world right now,” some might expect -- and even accept -- a hint of exaggeration. An eye-roll would do the trick, and then the grooving could commence in hopes of hearing a hit or two. But in the case of Justin Timberlake’s secret South By Southwest show, held at the 800-person capacity Coppertank Events Center, which was taken over by MySpace for the fest, it was no lie.

Coming off a weeklong guest star stint on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, which itself followed a hosting and performance gig on March 11’s Saturday Night Live, and soon to sell some 500,000 copies of his new album The 20/20 Experience (out March 15), according to Billboard estimates, Justin Timberlake has not only defied the typical lead time for a major label release (normally, upwards of a year; first word of RCA’s 20/20 came in January), he’s, in one fell swoop, managed to remind a global audience that EDM trend-chasers be damned: He’s an original and here to stay.

Most, of course, learned that about the former NSync-er back in 2002 when his solo debut, Justified, came out and swiftly churned out five singles. The album ended up selling four million copies in the U.S. and, followed by 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, which spawned six hits, cemented his place at the top of the pop heap. Indeed, it seems those glory days -- and all those glorious songs -- are still Timberlake’s go-tos, if his set list is any indication.

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Timberlake kicked off an hourlong performance with one of those very hits, Justified's “Like I Love You.” Emerging from backstage with acoustic guitar in hand, he joined a band that counted well over 12 members (some of whom play regularly with Jay-Z, Timberlake's touring partner this coming summer) and opted for the classic tuxedo print shirt rather than a stuffy suit and tie. The Tennessee ten, his troupe of horn players and backup singers (four of each) were also dressed down, though the big band motif was still evident in their stage props.

Proving his vocal prowess by scatting through the beginning of “My Love,” Timberlake was not only in fine form vocally, but physically too, at one point practically doing jumping jacks on the stage. And he was clearly having fun, as he showed by grabbing a fan's iPhone and turning the camera lens back on the crowd. 

The hit parade continued with “Cry Me a River,” which, perhaps in an attempt to update what is now a decade-old tune, added in a heavy guitar part which gave it a little more of an edge (besides the whole you-scorned-me-Britney vibe). He also substituted the F-word for the line “messing with my head,” a trick he used throughout the show that served as an easy reminder: JT’s a boy bander no more.

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“Are we there yet?” he asked the crowd, which included Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne and Neptunes member Chad Hugo. “I’d say you’re at about 82 percent. … Wanna hear some new shit?” The question was greeted with cheers, and so Timberlake debuted the opening track from his forthcoming album, called “Pusher Love Girl.” That brought the audience to around 91 percent, he noted.

Back to the oldies, Timberlake whipped out “Senorita” while seated at the piano and, complete with audience participation in the form of girl and guy parts that was a longtime staple of his FutureSex live show, said “OK, we’re at 100 now.”

New song “That Girl” followed, after which he launched into another crowd-pleaser, “What Goes Around (Comes Around),” followed by “FutureSex/LoveSound.” An unexpected cover came next, INXS’s “Need You Tonight,” which had even the unfortunate folks stuck outside (entry was first come, first serve) grooving in the street.

Ushering in St. Patrick’s day, Timberlake held up his beer glass with a “cheers” as he launched into “Suit and Tie,” clearly a new fan favorite. Infusing Trinidad James into the hit song, along with closer “Sexy Back,” it drove home yet again that JT, as he called himself at show’s end, is no longer the wide-eyed, curly-haired frontman of a pre-fab group, but an artist who oozes confidence and has talent to spare.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin