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June 26, 2003

Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera / June 21, 2003 / Las Vegas (MGM Grand Garden Arena)

Easily one of the hottest tickets of the summer, the Justified & Stripped Tour, co-headlined by Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, promised to pack a one-two punch. On this night, although Aguilera's voice soared at times, Timberlake was clearly the winner with his impeccable stage presence that kept fans on their feet.

Aguilera, who followed opener Black Eyed Peas, strutted on stage to the raunchy "Dirrty," the first single off her most recent album, "Stripped," and flaunted her new sexed-up image.

Revamping such familiar hits as "Genie in a Bottle" with a slow, sultry sound and S&M imagery and "Come on Over" with an acoustic edge left exciting pop songs few and far between. Instead, Aguilera opted to showcase her vocal talent and tackle a more mature sound.

For a tour touted as a must-see for tweens, teens and everyone in between, the long stretch of slow-tempo tunes, which included "Impossible" (written by Alicia Keys) and Etta James' "At Last" and "I Prefer You," left the crowd still, seated and practically silent despite the 22-year-old diva's superb singing.

A shortened version of "Lady Marmalade" helped the performance back up on its feet to some extent. And her most recent high-impact hit, "Fighter," and a souped up rendition of "What a Girl Wants" provided fans with some well-deserved dance moves. But it was too little too late.

After what seemed longer than just a 75-minute set, Aguilera closed with her biggest single to date, "Beautiful."

While Aguilera spent much of the night reflecting and talking about how she'd grown over the past few years, Timberlake was out to prove his merit and show the world what made him the most recognizable member of 'N Sync, even before his Jive solo debut, "Justified," was released. And prove himself he did, as the audience was in near hysterics from the first beat that leaked out from behind the curtain till the moment he left the stage.

Backed by a 14-piece band that included a horn section and a DJ, Timberlake was a burst of energy as soon as he hit the stage with the disco-infused single "Rock Your Body." To kick off the set, no less than eight dancers delivered the high-energy choreography the crowd had been longing for all night.

The show toned down a few times, but never to the disappointment of fans. To their delight, in fact, Timberlake even included a double-header of the 'N Sync hits "Gone" and "Girlfriend."

Brand-new single "Senorita" showed Timberlake's sheer enjoyment of working the crowd, as he divided boys and girls and led the arena in a sing-along. Moments like this -- and such antics as a microphone that magically pops out of the stage and the singer disappearing into a cloud of smoke after dancing a la Michael Jackson atop a piano -- were reminders that this teen idol is used to giving fans their money's worth.

In true boy-band style, Timberlake glided over fans on a crane-like contraption while he showed off his beat box skills. He even kicked it old-school for a minute by incorporating some well-known Beastie Boys beats and sampling Rob Base's "It Takes Two."

But, by far, the most extravagant performance of the night was "Cry Me a River." Not because of any stunts or moving catwalks, but because every chord and every dance move connected seamlessly. And Timberlake's vocals were dead-on. It was almost as though a seasoned Broadway production had just been put on in under 5 minutes.

Although it was obvious the crowd wanted more, Timberlake's set closed with "Like I Love You," the first hit off "Justified." After playing nearly the entire album and then some in only 75 minutes, he had no more to give, at least in terms of solo material. But, as he's still solidifying his place in pop music history, he's likely to have at least a few more hits under his belt before his next headlining tour. And, as the saying goes, if he sings it, they will surely come.

-- Katy Kroll

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