Structurally, there is nothing else quite like the iHeartRadio Music Festival. The two-day event, which concluded its third annual stint on Saturday (Sept. 21) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, is set up up like an awards show minus the awards, with presenters introducing a dozen high-wattage performers, all in the name of Clear Channel’s Internet radio platform. Unlike an awards ceremony, however, each artist taking the stage is given roughly 20 minutes to perform instead of a single number — meaning that, more often than not, the audience at the Garden Arena is treated to a medley of each artist’s most ubiquitous songs.
iHeartRadio Fest is essentially a collection of miniaturized headlining shows, with rock, pop, hip-hop, country and EDM acts all given a fraction of their usual running times to beguile a packed arena with their biggest and best songs. And the lineup is always guaranteed to deliver — let’s just say that Sir Paul McCartney was the opening act on the final day of this year’s two-night fest.
While Saturday performers like Bruno Mars, Miguel, Ke$ha and Maroon 5 amiably stuck to their respective scripts, a trio of artists in different genres — headliner Justin Timberlake, penultimate performer Drake and the aforementioned McCartney — all took risks with their Saturday sets, and succeeded all the more for it. One night after Katy Perry kept the lid on most of her “Prism” material, Timberlake rewarded fans curious about his forthcoming “The 20/20 Experience (2 of 2)” album by debuting three new cuts live, including the recently released “TKO.” That song made for a rhythmic mid-set highlight, but “True Blood” and “Only When I Walk Away” also delighted unfamiliar onlookers, and fit snugly in place with pop anthems like “Like I Love You” and “My Love.”
Besides the unveiling of new material, however, Timberlake‘s headlining set seemed looser and more engaging than his (very good) recent shows. There were even more hip-hop ad-libs than usual, as JT snuck in bars from Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” Jay Z’s “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt” and The Throne’s “N—as In Paris”; and overall, Timberlake appeared more comfortable with trying out new dance moves, audience callbacks and song selections (his hook to “Holy Grail” slayed, despite not really leading anywhere). Timberlake could have condensed the highlights of his ‘Legends of The Summer’ stadium run into a 40-minute hits display, but he opted to give his iHeartRadio faithful something a bit more special.
Likewise, Drake‘s set was highly anachronistic but deeply felt by both casual listeners and hardcore believers. Instead of touching radio favorites like “Best I Ever Had,” “Find Your Love,” “Take Care” or “Over,” Drizzy used his allotted time to play songs that made his face scrunch up in disgusted delight, like the woozy “Crew Love,” sneering promo single “All Me” and venomous guest spot on Migos’ “Versace.” Drake kept asking the Vegas crowd if it was ready to party, but this was clearly Drake’s party, and he was going to play whatever he damn well pleased. The finale of “The Motto,” “Hold On, We’re Goin’ Home” and “Started From The Bottom” clearly tickled him, and slaked the audience’s thirst for some hits before Drake sauntered off complacently. As the release date for his third album “Nothing Was The Same” approaches, Drake is a highly self-assured artist, in both performance style and clothing style (the rapper sported a sweatshirt that featured an extreme close-up of Jaden Smith’s face on Friday night).
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McCartney came onstage hours before Drake and Timberlake, and treated his early performance as a testing ground for new material. The upcoming “New” full-length got three songs plopped into the eight-song set list, and while McCartney understandably wanted to promote his first new album in six years at a high-profile event, the emphasis on fresh songs was heavier, and ultimately more successful, than expected. Macca’s inclusion of “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Lady Madonna” and “Live and Let Die” kept the folks in the bleacher seats pleased, but new cuts like “Everybody Out There” and “Save Us” were far from obligatory. Who knows — maybe Macca’s inventive set will prevent him for being scheduled to open for Zedd next year.
Even Saturday night’s more vanilla set lists still tasted fairly delicious, though. Ke$ha stumbled (quite literally) through the choreography accompanying her hits, but the hits like “TiK ToK” and “Blow” were there nonetheless, and the pop singer hustled to make them work. Tim McGraw and Thirty Seconds To Mars relied on veteran leadership and muscular drumming to keep the crowd interested, while Bruno Mars and Maroon 5 demonstrated why they have been ruling radio over the past three years. The reception to Miguel and Phoenix‘s non-hits was a bit chilly, but that comes as no fault to two of the more innovative artists in R&B and rock music. And Zedd busted out his Top 10 hit “Clarity” extremely quickly, almost as if he was presenting a mass business card before wading through more electronic textures.
And then there’s Miley Cyrus. After performing for 20 minutes and debuting her No. 1 single “Wrecking Ball” live at the iHeartRadio Village on Saturday afternoon, the 20-year-old singer was asked to do the same on the MGM Grand Garden Arena platform hours later. Cyrus’ encore performance was not as sonically sharp as the short afternoon set, but the singer must have foreseen the chatter surrounding the performance to focus on her style much more than her music anyway. Wearing a white fishnet dress with high shorts and black pasties covering her nipples, Cyrus inspired murmurs of outrageousness long before singing a note of her new break-up smash. Cyrus took a risk on Saturday night, as she is wont to do, but one wishes that it wasn’t a non-musical chance that distracted from “Wrecking Ball’s” live coronation.