Trees. Fire. Plaid. Booze. Music. What else do you need for an outing to the woods?
In Justin Timberlake’s case, who launched his Man of the Woods world tour at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre last night (March 13) behind his new album of the same name, it was those five standards — plus his trusty 15-piece band, the Tennessee Kids; a dance troupe; his adoring wife, Jessica, front and centre; 16,500 fans; local park ranger Drake, keeping an eye on things (from a suite – let’s call it a treehouse); and an easy to navigate pathway (catwalk) connecting, say, three camp sites (the traditional mainstage, plus two smaller ones).
Oh, and since JT is a Grammy and Emmy winner, after all, he also needed a change of clothes: a suit and tie, natch, for a brief formal address.
The 37-year-old Memphis native — whose international music career officially launched 20 years ago this March with NSYNC’s self-titled debut album, and as a solo artist five years later with his Justified LP, effectively ending the multi-million-selling boy band — didn’t show any nerves on opening night. So comfortable was he in his element, singing, dancing, playing guitar and keyboards, that if there were any kinks to work out in the production, they weren’t obvious. If Chris Stapleton had been expected to make a surprise appearance for “Say Something,” or real-life bears were supposed to appear from mechanical trap doors, we were none the wiser.
The pacing for the two hours worked, except for a short, hard-to-hear time-filler film, but what else could he do? Sometimes, you just have to accept the lulls and go get a beer or popcorn.
Timberlake’s second Toronto show is Thursday, and he will return to the city in October for a third. The 100-date Man of the Woods tour is scheduled to last 10 months. The North American leg ends in his hometown on May 30. So without giving that much away so early, here are some highlights:
MAN OF THE STAGE:
More and more artists are giving their entire arena’s worth of fans the opportunity to be close to the action at various times in the show. Timberlake’s stage set up filled the length of the Air Canada Centre — the main stage (seats were sold behind it), and a catwalk that wound its way to a smaller centre stage, as well as a third at the far end, and back around to the main, like a pathway through the woods. There was only the odd fake tree, so as to not impede anyone’s sight-line.
But there were many trees projected on the three-dozen scrims that descended from above, over the three stages, in a circle pattern. There were also strobes and funnel lights and other laser effects. And the band’s main-stage platform also had the capacity to move and rotate. In and around this expansive set up were fans, who had bought the VIP experience to be on the floor.
MAN OF THE BAND:
Timberlake may be billed as a solo artist, but he also has the Tennessee Kids — a 15-piece ensemble that includes a horn section and backing vocalists. They are his support, and he lets them shine and really be a part of what he’s doing onstage. They are his hype men and women, allowed to move and groove and enjoy themselves, not stand still and provide accompaniment in the shadows, like hired guns to support the star and just do their job. Some are given solos, many join him on the other two stages or up and down the catwalk. They give the show a much-appreciated vibrancy.
MAN OF THE MUSIC:
JT opened the concert with the new “Filthy,” and closed two hours later with “Can’t Stop The Feeling” from the 2016 movie Trolls. In between, the set included songs from his 15-year career, including first-time live performances of the title track, “Man of the Woods,” “Higher Higher,” “Flannel,” “Morning Light” and “Montana” (see full set list below).
The two highlights were undoubtedly “Cry Me A River” — for which he had a doomy fog-constructed pathway and pouring “rain” lights, and pairs of male-female dancers that mock fought — and “Mirrors,” the rousing song that also got him choked up in the late Jonathan Demme’s 2016 concert film from the 20/20 Experience World Tour. The latter saw his image appear like in a funhouse, multiplied all over the screens, as he encouraged the crowd to sing and join him in overhead claps.
MAN OF THE WOODS:
After the short film that allowed him and some Tennessee Kids to change into plaid, and move to he far stage, with a fire, acoustic guitar, upright bass and hand drums, Timberlake mentioned how back in Tennessee, they’d “light a fire and tell our stories.” So that’s what JT and his band did, in musical form — allowing each of the group’s four backup singers their own spotlight, to cover Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor,” The Beatles’ “Come Together,” John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
MAN OF THE BOOZE:
The man who has joined Chris Stapleton on “Tennessee Whiskey” is offering fans The “Stage Bar” VIP Experience on this tour, which includes a barstool right up against the centre stage, and a drink ticket. Right after “Mirrors,” and before “Drink You Away,” Timberlake got a round of shots for members of his band, and himself, and had a few left over to hand out to the 19-plus fans. “I love you so fuckin’ much. It’s been a minute,” he said, the lights on. “Thrilled to be here on our first night.”
He then chatted with a few people. “You came here together? She loves me? I just asked if you came here together, man. Help me help you, bro,” he teased. “This guy… I said, ‘Did y’all come here together? He says, ‘She loves you.’” He then congratulated a female fan who had a baby on the way — though presumably she didn’t get a drink. “Here’s to the wonderful city I always have a blast in,” he said, holding his shot in the air, and toasting The 6, the North, and Drake. “And to all of you. Thank you so much for coming out tonight. I love you so much.” And then he kept on.
— mi?? (@1106up10) March 14, 2018
Full set list:
Midnight Summer Jam
Man of the Woods
Suits & Tie (with Sly, Slick and Wicked’s Sho Nuff intro)
My Love (Big Sean’s Blessings intro, which Drake is on)
Cry Me a River
Drink You Away
Until the End of Time
(each sung by a backup singer) Fleetwood Man’s Dreams, Lauryn Hill’s Ex-Factor, The Beatles’ Come Together, John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy
What Goes Around…Comes Around
Rock Your Body
Can’t Stop The Feeling