In Music Reviews

JT finally came back to Milwaukee and put on a show worthy of a sellout crowd.

Timberlake a stellar showman even when Fiserv Forum show gets lost in the woods

It was the 21st night of September – and not just any 21st night of September, but the 40th anniversary of Earth, Wind & Fire's jubilant hit, a classic Justin Timberlake has in his portfolio thanks to the soundtrack to his 2016 animated musical "Trolls." And yet "September" failed to make the pop star's setlist at Fiserv Forum Friday night. Zero stars. Hit publish.

OK, fine, all is forgiven – a fairly easy task after the pop showman's dance-filled, technically sophisticated yet effortlessly smooth and charismatic two-hour return to Milwaukee, somehow his first show in Brew City since a joint concert with Christina Aguilera at the Bradley Center in 2003.

While it wasn't the new arena's first show, Timberlake's concert certainly marked Fiserv Forum's most complicated, extravagant and logistically demanding showcase so far (no offense intended to The Killers). As expected, the most recent Super Bowl halftime show performer brought all sorts of modern bells and whistles to Milwaukee – from a sprawling stage connecting both ends of the arena with a winding pathway complete with a functioning bar against the middle of the stage, to high-tech strobe shows and state-of-the-art screens perfectly choreographed with the action, smoothly sliding up and down out of JT's way as he skipped and danced across the floor and acknowledged all corners of the packed crowd.

It was the kind of bold-font show you expect from one of the world's biggest pop stars – and all the while, Fiserv Forum held up, putting on the kind of futuristic concert spectacle you'd have a hard time imagining (and, considering the decade-plus wait for the singer's return, probably booking) back at the now-closed BMO Harris Bradley Center. And that's not even including the improved acoustic sound and seat arrangement, which felt much closer to the action thanks to the building's bowl design.

At some point, Fiserv Forum will lose its buzz and shiny allure, evolving from the fancy new arena into just the arena, no need for mention as its obvious upgrades become the new standard and the sense of discovery walking in turns into regular routine. But that time's still a ways off – especially after a big-budget show like Friday night that put all of its new advanced capabilities on scintillating display.

Of course, to truly put on an all-caps SHOW, you need an all-caps SHOWMAN to take the stage – and Timberlake certainly still qualifies. Even surrounded by beaming strobes and flashy screens, the pop star – as well as his beloved backing band, The Tennessee Kids – never lost your attention.

Opening up with "Filthy," Timberlake enlivened the hookless techno-funk number with smooth voice and his slick dance moves, eventually escalating to a charmingly boy-band-esque dance break at the center stage. Even when the setlist went a little slack, Timberlake never did, bounding with energy across the floor, showcasing his full set of performance tools – from a mesmerizing strobe-assisted "microphone-eography" dance break on the addictively brassy, jazzy "Suit and Tie" to busting out the acoustic guitar on "Drink You Away" and "Say Something," and mixing "My Love" right on stage – and charming the crowd into cheering on even the weakest numbers.

In fact, the night's most entertaining moments may have come in between hits. During a glorified intermission after the soulful anthem "Mirrors," Timberlake took some time to catch his breathe with the Tennessee Kids at center stage – and catch up with folks in the crowd. Far beyond the usual "thank yous" (though he had plenty of those to pass around throughout the night, as well as some "We're not worthy" bows to the raucous audience), he first snagged a pair of Packers jerseys as gifts from a duo in the crowd – one for him, the other for his son, Silas – inspiring a loud "Go Pack Go" chant. He also gave the Bucks a shoutout (according to Twitter, he dropped by to say hi to Giannis) but don't tell the Memphis Grizzlies, the hometown team he owns a minority stake in.

OK, sure, anyone can get a Wisconsin crowd to cheer the Pack and roar with delight at being called cheeseheads, but then Timberlake kept the variety hour conversation going, chatting with the two women, complimenting their baby sizing knowledge and joking about the Timberlake clan's sensitive skin before asking the crowd if he could share a drink with them, grabbing a tray of shots for himself and the back-up band leading into, fittingly, "Drink You Away." Pop music is a fickle business, but Timberlake's smooth, personable comedy and performance skills – as light-footed as his footwork – will always make him a commodity through thick and thin.

As for the thin, Friday night was indeed a stop on Timberlake's "Man of the Woods" tour, which unfortunately meant he had to play a decent amount off "Man of the Woods" – eight of the 26 songs, though four of those numbers were solos showcases for his backup singers, so the album made up more a third of the concert. And while some of the tracks are enjoyable – "Drink You Away" and "Say Something" are the rare few that seem committed to the album's supposed raw, country-infused concept – most are at best forgettable toss-aways.

The songs aren't even the biggest problem with "Man of the Woods"; it's the confused, half-committed aesthetic, a veneer of authenticity, realness and nature that goes as deep as wearing flannel. What's a futuro-funk tune like "Filthy" doing dancing through the stage's scattered trees, or the nocturnal jazz groove of "Montana" matching up with images of buffalo – other than in name only? Or even just Justin slinking around to "SexyBack" in a Western-esque fringe-covered jacket? It's confused, and the pieces don't quite fit, leaving the idea of a raw, contemplative man in the wilderness ... but who maybe stayed at the Super 8 instead of the cabin.

In the first half, Timberlake was able to chug through his dips into "Man of the Woods" with his high energy plus a helpful scattering of past hits like the kinky "SexyBack" and the spicy, sultry "Señorita," complete with a drum battle and rotating platforms.

The second half of the show, however, started with a "Woods"-inspired extended campfire hangout that felt more like the Gap fall collection photoshoot version of "nature" and "authenticity" than anything natural or authentic, an Instagram filter of age and grain on the photo (fitting considering the Super 8 camera rolling on the singers, giving the segment a "community theater 'Rent' performance" vibe). And while the intention was nice – tilting the spotlight over to his talented backup singers, all with impressive pipes of their own – the night had to put in some work after to recover the energy, a task the following "Man of the Woods" tracks "Morning Light," "Montana," "Supplies" and even a somewhat stripped-down version of "What Goes Around ... Comes Around" weren't quite up to.

Luckily, energy is in high supply when you've got hits like "Summer Love" and "Rock Your Body" to rely on – the latter coming with a brief jaunt into the crowd for a disco-floor dance number that was pretty nifty, even if it was hard to see much of anything behind the standing room crowd. And there's no way even the most jaded critic (hello!) can resist dancing back to their car after closing the night out on the buoyant bliss of "Can't Fight the Feeling!"

With a parade of hits like those, even with the occasional speed bump, Timberlake's long-awaited return to Milwaukee gave his fans a 21st night of September to remember – even without Earth, Wind & Fire's help.

Setlist

"Filthy"
"Midnight Summer Jam"
"LoveStoned"
"SexyBack"
"Man of the Woods"
"Higher Higher"
"Senorita"
"Suit and Tie"
"My Love"
"Cry Me A River"
"Mirrors"
"Drink You Away"
"Until the End of Time"
"Dreams" (Fleetwood Mac cover)
"Ex-Factor" (Lauryn Hill cover)
"Come Together" (Beatles cover)
"Thank God I'm a Country Boy" (John Denver cover)
"Morning Light"
"What Goes Around ... Comes Around"
"Say Something"
"Montana"
"Summer Love"
"Rock Your Body"
"Supplies"
"Like I Love You"
"Can't Stop the Feeling!"


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