Concert review: Justin Timberlake at Nationwide Arena

Erica Thompson
Justin Timberlake performs in concert as part of his Man of the Woods tour at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on May 7, 2018. [Photo by Adam Cairns]

“That’s how it goes down on a Monday in Columbus,” Justin Timberlake confidently told the crowd at his recent performance at Nationwide Arena.

The “Man of the Woods Tour” stop took place about six months after Janet Jackson brought her politically minded “State of the World Tour” to the city; less than two weeks after Kanye West shared his signed “Make America Great Again” hat; and two days after Childish Gambino released his jarring “This Is America” video.

So, while other mainstream stars are responding to the current political climate, Timberlake escaped to the woods with a comparatively safe concert, focusing on showmanship and music absent heavy political messages.

Additionally, controversy surrounding Timberlake has tapered. Little has been said about his role in Jackson’s infamous 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction since the Super Bowl halftime in February, which Timberlake headlined (some deemed the event “Janet Jackson Appreciation Day” to take the spotlight away from Timberlake). And the anger of Prince fans seems to have subsided since Timberlake’s polarizing tribute to the late superstar during that performance.

Generally, Timberlake’s popularity has ebbed and flowed. While his 2018 album, Man of the Woods, debuted at number one, generating two top-10 hits with “Filthy” and the Chris Stapleton-assisted “Say Something,” the album fell out of the top 10 by its fourth week. It has since been certified gold — a respectable achievement these days — but, by comparison, the first half of two-part project The 20/20 Experience went double-platinum in its first month of release in 2013.

Regardless, Timberlake remains a safe-bet as a performer, and he put on an enjoyable show at Nationwide. Fully committed to the outdoorsy, countryman theme of his latest album, he performed on multiple tree-dotted stages connected by a narrow pathway constructed to mimic a walk through the forest. Multiple giant screens grouped in two cylinders above the stage displayed blue skies, mountains, country pastures and roaming buffalo throughout the show.

For the most part, Timberlake stuck to a simple outfit — black pants, flannel, a jean jacket and boots (you can dress like him by buying MOTW merch, which surprisingly missed an opportunity to capitalize on his song “Supplies” with camping gear).

Backed by his talented and vibrant dancers and the Tennessee Kids band (including former Prince guitarist Mike Scott and a horn section complete with a euphonium!), Timberlake opened the show with new songs “Filthy,” “Midnight Summer Jam,” “Man of the Woods” and “Higher Higher,” interspersed with old favorites “Lovestoned” and “Sexyback.”

But the show arguably reached another level when the tinkling piano chords of 2003 hit “Senorita,” rang through the stadium, quickly reinforcing that Timberlake’s back catalog is stronger than his latest offering. He followed that song with an engrossing performance of “Suit & Tie.” On the track, Jay-Z instructs listeners to “sit back and enjoy the light show,” which Timberlake brought to life with a dazzling solo dance break that included impressive manipulation of a microphone stand. The woman sitting next to me was so moved she had to sit down.

Timberlake closed out the segment with more strong hits from years past, reinventing “My Love” and “Cry Me a River” on his drum machine, and ending “Mirrors” on his knees to deafening roars.

After the requisite “O-H, I-O” chant and cliche admission that Columbus was the “craziest crowd so far” in his tour, Timberlake strapped on his acoustic guitar and launched into his country song “Drink You Away.”

Following a stirring rendition of ballad “Until the End of Time,” Timberlake and his band sat around a real-life campfire onstage and played covers, including Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” He closed the slower portion of the concert with “Morning Light, “What Goes Around Comes Around” and “Say Something.”

Timberlake ended the concert with a string of songs — older hits “Summer Love,” “Rock Your Body” and “Like I Love You” among them — played in quick succession before the buoyant finale, featuring “Can’t Stop the Music.”

Throughout the show, Timberlake performed like an artist with nothing left to prove. His dance moves — quick spins and fast footwork — were effective, but not spectacular or innovative. He appears to just have a basic handle on guitar and piano. His voice was clear and consistent, but, with the exception of “Drink You Away,” he missed some opportunities to really showcase his range.

That isn’t to say he was sleepwalking through the show; his joy of performing is apparent. That he can deliver such a solid performance is the result of decades of honing his skills. And while he hasn’t blatantly used his art to comment on society, he certainly provided a woodsy escape from the turmoil of the world for one night.