Banjos were plucked, fires were started, retinas were widened: a weekend of shows in Vegas.
Over the hills and through the “Woods”
The crickets chirped and the campfire blazed as the guy hawking a bin of Bud Light tallboys labored up the stairs.
The great outdoors and the great indoors coalesced, driven by the busy hands and liquid hips of a pop star testifying to his country boy bona fides.
“I’m a man of the woods,” Justin Timberlake sang on the title track of his latest album, cavorting in knee-high fake grass, his voice buoyed by a soulful, Southern rock guitar lick.
Timberlake has described “Man of the Woods” as “modern Americana with 808s” — though it’s more indebted to the latter drum machine than the former roots music.
This blend of the organic and the synthetic, earthiness and the electronically enhanced, is at the heart of the record and the stage show meant to bring it all to life, which came to T-Mobile Arena on Saturday (Timberlake also performed at the venue Sunday).
The production values underscored this merger, with two stages at the opposite side of the arena connected by a snaking catwalk adorned with faux trees and foliage. Nature footage was periodically projected on the three circular and crescent-shaped holographic screens, all lush forests and glowing-eyed wolves, the latter clearly drawn to the occasion by the scent of arena hot dogs.
Despite these pastoral flourishes, “Woods” doesn’t represent too dramatic a shift for Timberlake musically. Show opener “Filthy” was a lean, double entendre-infused electro pop come-on. The bass-heavy “Supplies” boomed atop trap rhythms. The disco-lite “Montana,” where Timberlake got his Barry Gibbs on with floating-on-air falsetto, was evocative of Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories,” which was produced in part by Pharrell Williams, who also worked on “Montana” as half of production duo The Neptunes.
There were more overt nods to the Americana that Timberlake eyed on “Woods,” namely a pair of tunes written with country singer Chris Stapleton, the soulful “Morning Light” and a thunderously received “Say Something,” which escalated into an open-throated R&B hymnal.
When you think about Timberlake’s hometown, Memphis, Tennessee, which looms large on “Woods,” it’s a city that’s defined musically by its breadth: blues, R&B, rock and roll, and country all have rich histories there, dating back to when any boundaries between those genres were permeable, not rigid.
This essence has always been alive in Timberlake’s songbook, and the natural, skilled aggregator led his 11-piece band down every aforementioned musical avenue Saturday.
“Where I’m from, we like to sit around the fire and tell our stories,” Timberlake explained midway through his 27-song, two-hour performance, taking a seat next to a campfire blazing on stage. He then ceded the mic to the band members surrounding him as they told their stories in song, be it Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” or John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
Timberlake has stated that “Woods” is meant to be listened to outside, preferably in a setting like this.
But sometimes life gives you a roof and four walls, and you’ve just gotta do your best to knock them down in song.
‘Something you don’t hear in Vegas every day’
You could feel the love, literally, in the rhythmic thwack-thwack-thwack of a dancing girl’s airborne ponytails registering on a stranger’s arm as she spun herself in circles.
“Get the banjo louder!” one of the musicians on stage commanded in this stuffed, giddy room. “That’s something you don’t hear in Vegas every day.”
And here was something you didn’t see in Vegas every day: the very first band at the very first Bender Jamboree, which consumed the Plaza nearly 24/7 from Thursday though Sunday.
Said group, San Francisco’s harmony-heavy bluegrass troupe Hot Buttered Rum, wasn’t supposed to be here.
It was initially scheduled to play the pool stage, but strong, chilly winds forced the band down to the Juke Joint four floors below (“Mother Nature has rolled craps,” a sign by the elevators read, announcing the switch).
But the change was a fortuitous one: With the Jamboree throngs packed in mosh-pit tight, a tone of togetherness was established early and maintained throughout the weekend, these intensively festive festivalgoers in their decorative taco headgear, floral shirts and beard upon beard forming one of the more jovial crowds you’re likely to encounter.
There were moments of restraint.
“We’re the calm before the storm,” astutely observed Emily Frantz, half of North Carolina roots music duo Mandolin Orange, who delivered a warmly spun set of soulful Americana on Thursday at the Orleans showroom. “After us, you can get really wild.”
And that they did, be it to the prog-grass virtuosity of Jon Stickley Trio, who connected the dots between John Denver and Rush at the Casino Lounge during multiple sets Thursday, or the hip-hop-influenced Head for the Hills, who heated up the Juke Joint on Thursday, to the top-billed Greensky Bluegrass, who dazzled the Showroom on Sunday with Newgrass great Sam Bush.
Sunday’s theme was Pajamaboree, and as Greensky played, dudes in tie-dye PJs and turtle slippers boogied down, dressed for sleep, none forthcoming.
‘No computers up here’
They transform their songs with the songs that transformed them.
The members of Portland, Oregon, alt-rock changelings Portugal. The Man may hide their faces among the shadows of the largely dark stages upon which they perform, but they don’t do the same with their influences.
They regularly incorporate a number of covers into their set lists. These selections serve as jumping-off points into tunes of their own that bear trace elements of shared DNA from the songs they’re paying tribute to.
To wit, Portugal. The Man opened their spectacular show Friday at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas with the martial stomp of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” its rhythmic heft drifting right into the anthemic psychedelia of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2,” which segued seamlessly into the group’s own “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.”
This a recurring theme: The garage rock jangle of “Atomic Man” borrowed a refrain from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter;” “All Your Light (Times Like These)” contained a portion of Ghostface Killah’s “Kilo,” climactic ballad “Sleep Forever” culminated in a singalong of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
Tellingly, the one and only time the band played it straight was a curt performance of the breakout hit “Feel it Still,” one of the songs of the summer of 2017 that earned the band its first Grammy win for best pop duo/group performance in January.
That song was a game changer for this bunch, elevating Portugal. The Man from solid-drawing cult act to one of the higher-billed bands at Coachella this year, though they seemed to be suggesting that it wouldn’t change them on this night.
Success does have its benefits, though, which could be seen in their dazzling stage production.
These dudes are full-on retro-futurists: They plug their instruments into their vintage amps directly, eschewing wireless technology, and flaunt their analog approach.
“That’s right, kids, no computers up here, just instruments,” they announced on the video screen behind them toward the end of their 13-song, 90-minute performance.
But on the flip side, their light show was decidedly cutting edge.
If you were fortunate enough to sit on the upper level of The Chelsea, you were treated to a 3-D effect where the band’s rainbow-colored laser lights intermingled with the dry ice clouds floating from the stage in the same way that headlight beams converge with a thick fog, creating a stunning visual dimension to their performance.