The anticipation for the Houston stop on the singer's 20/20 Experience World Tour was off the charts, with tickets going for four to five times face value (a $175 ticket brought upwards of $800 to $1,000 on resale sites) in the hottest concert of the year. And why not? Timberlake is simply the greatest pop star of this generation.
But by intermission, my friend and I were ready to leave.
"You know it's not a party, until you let me drink with you," Timberlake said, adding, "This is to the South, baby." That got the biggest cheer of the night.
The stage set, with a wall that looked like it was made of white bathroom tiles and a boxy black floor with tiered steps on each end, was the ugliest one I've seen at a major concert tour. The lighting was so dim that it was often hard to spot Timberlake in the murkiness and there were no jumbo screens positioned around the arena to catch his expressions. The singer used variations of "Houston, are y'all ready?," "H-Town" and "Houston, Texas" so many times to pump up the crowd that my friend joked that we should start a drinking game and take a sip every time he mentioned the city's name.
Only we would have been drunk by the fifth song.
Timberlake, backed up by a large '40s style orchestra, looked dapper in a white dinner jacket, black vest and slacks, with black and white loafers, and slicked-back hair. And his singing, if not inspired, was certainly professional and at times soulful, particularly on "My Love," "LoveStoned," and "Cry Me a River." But he seemed hemmed in by the set, which didn't allow him to interact with the audience, and, he was not nearly as electric live-and-in-person as he was on TV at the MTV Video Music Awards, where his 15-minute performance remains a musical masterpiece.
Even diehard fans seemed a tad disappointed. One standing in line behind me at the concession stand at intermission, who had seen Timberlake the last time he was in Houston, gave the 32-year-old singer a weak 7 on a scale of 10, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the "President of Pop."
The second half of the show didn't start out much better, with a number of forgettable songs that had me looking at my watch (I had to admit, Timberlake, who by now was dressed totally in black, didn't skimp on time; the show lasted more than three hours).
And then something happened. On his 20th song, "Let the Groove Get In," the stage moved — and the singer got his mojo back.
The front part of the stage broke away, with Timberlake and his dancers on a long catwalk that slowly moved across the length of the arena. And the show came alive.
Free at last, Timberlake flirted with the ecstatic audience as he stood at the end of the bridge and then danced to the other side several times, letting his legs dangle over the crowd as he joyfully followed up with "That Girl," which has the infectious sing-along lyrics, "I'm in love with that girl, so don't be mad at me."
At the other end of the vast arena, he exited the bridge, stopped for a drink and mingled with the audience at a VIP bar. "You know it's not a party, until you let me drink with you," he said, adding, "This is to the South, baby."
That got the biggest cheer of the night.
He stopped on a small island in the crowd, strapped on a guitar and did his best Elvis imitation, swiveling his hips to "Heartbreak Hotel," which is OK because, after all, Timberlake grew up in Memphis. Then he paid tribute to Michael Jackson, with a cover of the haunting "Human Nature," before returning to his own slow dance hit, "What Goes Around.... Comes Around."
By then, all was forgiven.
But Timberlake didn't stop there. He revved up the crowd again with "Cabaret," before traveling back to the main stage to close with a cascade of his most popular hits, including "Take Back The Night," "Suit & Tie," and "Sexy Back," which had so many fans up out of their seats and dancing so hard that the Toyota Center was literally shaking.
At the end, he didn't milk the audience for applause, like many performers do before performing an already planned encore. He simply finished with a rousing extended rendition of "Mirrors." And then he was outa there.