Rock column, Mail on Sunday, April 29 2007

Justin Timberlake
Hallam FM Arena, Sheffield

Natasha Bedingfield
RCA, out tomorrow

Justin Timberlake’s tour, which reached England on Friday, is billed as taking place ‘in the round’. It’s true that he is in mid-arena with the crowd on all sides, but the phrase doesn’t begin to convey the subtle audacity of the staging.

The stage is shaped like a propeller, with four prongs sticking out from a central hub, each prong a runway for Timberlake and his nine dancers. The hub and its penumbra, dotted with trapdoors, can move up and down and rotate. Each of the seven band members is on a disc that can move up, down and sideways. You hope they don’t suffer from motion sickness.

The video screens are arcs of translucent fabric which can descend and retract. Timberlake starts off imprisoned in a cylinder of gauze; later, he stands alone apart from his own inflated image, dwarfed by his own ghost. It’s not so
much a feast for the eyes as the perfect gourmet meal.

Timberlake, now 26, really works at touring. Not for him a brief stint at Wembley with a couple of dates in the north if you’re lucky. This is one of 14 shows outside London, to be followed in July by five nights in Greenwich, reopening the arena formerly known as the Millennium Dome.

Most unusually for a young American star, he seems to know where he is. He reminds the audience that this room is where he gave his first solo concert - in 2003, when (he doesn’t add) many of his compatriots were refusing to set foot in Europe. He raises a toast, holding aloft a funny little test-tube of some bright red drink (Campari? Pomegreat?). He grew up near Memphis and there is a touch of the Southern gentleman in the courtesy he shows the audience.

For female superstars like Madonna and Kylie, arena shows are all about dressing up. Timberlake is smartly turned out - Gatsby in trainers early on, a Fifties student look after half-time - but he doesn’t play different characters, despite having a sideline as a Hollywood actor. He is here simply to sing and dance.

His dancing, both snappy and elastic, industrious but not laboured, is second only to his role model, Michael Jackson. He sings in two registers - high, and very high - and, with a little help from four backing vocalists, hits the notes beautifully given how much he is hurling himself around.

Often, though, his voice stands out too much. The sound is awful - clunky and overblown, with too wide a gap between the high end (Timberlake and his fans, older now but still screaming like 12-year-olds) and the supersized beats. Hardly any of the songs are strong enough to withstand this. A dirge with a fashionable dance beat is still a dirge.

What Goes Around works well with its cascading chorus, Cry Me A River is touching, and SexyBack, although more of a production than a song, is crisply compelling. But most of the ballads are watery, the medley of N’Sync hits is lame, and the best tune all night is Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, which appears on the PA beforehand - and gets quoted by Timberlake during Cry Me A River.

He is a megastar now, but even he is upstaged by the staging. It makes you feel you’re inside the show, an extraordinary sensation. Seldom can such slickness have been combined with such creativity. Timberlake just needs to find the songs to match.

You don’t expect British R’n’B singers to outdo American ones, but Natasha Bedingfield’s songs have something Timberlake’s lack. They connect. The production is placed a firm second to the melody and the message. They can seem amateurish by US standards, but they touch people.

Bedingfield writes conversational lyrics and her second album is like a good magazine, homing in on the hopes and fears of young women. The first single is a catchy anthem, fearlessly entitled I Wanna Have Your Babies. ‘In an age of unlimited lasciviousness,’ says this week’s New Yorker, ‘this song is possibly the freakiest thing on pop radio.’

NB is packed with potential hits and not much more, which is probably enough. It’s hard to see any men buying it, except as a present for a girl. But the present will go down well.