Justin Timberlake was trying to locate his aura. He looked behind the keyboard he played Thursday at the House of Blues in Anaheim; he felt for it on the frets of an acoustic guitar; he opened his mouth, human beatbox style, in hopes that it would tumble out transformed. On the first night of a short tour preparing for a September release of the singer's second solo album, "Futuresex/Lovesounds," this most graceful of pop stars acted a bit as if he'd put his charisma somewhere and couldn't remember where. That didn't stop Timberlake from enjoying another evolutionary leap away from his teen-pop roots; it simply meant that the sense of privilege he's projected for his entire career sometimes gave way to a focused introversion that was quite musicianly.
Trading in the arena stage for an intimate, sweaty nightclub -- albeit one on the grounds of Disneyland, familiar turf for this ex-Mickey Mouse Club star -- Timberlake interrupted his deservedly famous song-and-danceman routine to let his music nearly speak for itself. Asking the audience's permission to venture beyond what they knew, he presented previously unheard songs in stretchy arrangements that emphasized grooves over hooky choruses. Older hits received lush new settings intertwining alternative rock, minimalist hip-hop and sophisticated R&B. Timberlake luxuriated in his artistic focus, sending long lines of falsetto vocal improv toward the heavens and leaning into his large backup group's two electric guitarists (note: no turntables) to better connect with their interplay.
Timberlake's adult cool also came through in his interactions with the crowd. Clad in a gray suit, pinstripe shirt and inexplicable long scarf (soon shed), Timberlake clearly meant to completely eradicate his already fading image as an ex-boy-band member with a body born to do the robot and the moonwalk, coasting on Michael Jackson rip-offs. At one point while Timberlake sat at the keyboard, a fan threw him a white armband and demanded that the idol sweat on the relic and return it. "There's no way," he laughed, promising to wipe his wet forehead with it later. Of course, he never did. Too much music was at stake to play such games.
As for that music, it didn't brim with hooks, though it held plenty of ideas. Whether breaking into a riff from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or helping lay down a gentle bed of funk on a couple of Babyface-influenced new ballads, Timberlake finally seemed ready to show off a musical savoir-faire to match his bodily elegance.
One new song featured complex layers of vocal and instrumental harmony, which came together like a beautiful spider's web; another, a classic slow jam, allowed the singer to wax sincere about a woman whose beauty allowed him to forget the world's evils. (The lyric's likely subject, the actress Cameron Diaz, beamed from the balcony as her longtime love performed.) But the excitement of the evening overshadowed these new offerings; the crowd seemed happiest when Timberlake showed off his patented dance moves and led some familiar sing-along choruses. In this party atmosphere, Timberlake couldn't be blamed for trotting out some old choreography, or for underplaying the new songs in favor of crowd-pleasing chestnuts.
One new song, however, fully energized the room: Timberlake's hit "SexyBack," produced by his current main collaborator Timbaland, who's having a great summer between that song and "Promiscuous," his gleeful rhyming battle with Nelly Furtado.
When the twinkly, solid-bodied producer traipsed onstage at the encore to help perform "SexyBack," Timberlake immediately seemed more relaxed than he'd been all night. The two friends danced together, exchanged rhymes and joyfully jumped around, getting the crowd on its feet and ecstatic.
They even did a verse or two of "Promiscuous." Timberlake had finally found the well-centered energy he'd been inching toward; at this moment, he'd have to admit, the most powerful aura in pop belongs to his friend.