This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.
One could easily assess the success of Justin Timberlake and Jay Z’s mega-concert at the Rose Bowl on Sunday night by watching only the ushers and vendors walking the aisles.
Normally a passive lot trying to log hours and get paid, during the two superstars’ Legends of Summer tour, the workers were dancing, rhyming and singing along with the 60,000 or so others.
A lemonade seller shuffled in rhythm as Jay Z ripped through one of his biggest hits, “99 Problems,” two guys in vastly different tax brackets meeting in the middle, if only for a sec: “If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one."
A cotton candy guy lifted his pink clouds to the sky, bouncing them while the rapper delivered his buoyant classic “Empire State of Mind.” A lady shilling water stopped, pulled out her camera and took a selfie while Justin Timberlake crooned “What Goes Around ... Comes Around” in the background.
With few pauses for breath and/or wardrobe changes, Timberlake and Jay, teaming up for the Southern California stop on a 10-city American tour, played most of what you wanted and a few things they maybe could have skipped.
Stealing a number from the White Stripes’ playbook, the Legends tour featured a high-tech red and black light show, with jumbo screens projecting huge images of the Men of the Hour. As a pure spectacle, it was hard to top -- though it wasn’t as impressive as U2’s stage setup at the Bowl in ’09. Still, it was a feast of light and architecture, and it provided ample spectacle for the price.
The most impressive structure in the building, though, was Timberlake’s backing band. The Tennessee Kids are a smoking unit, a dozen-plus musicians on brass, beats, percussion, guitars, keyboards and samples who sound as practiced as James Brown’s tightly wound Famous Flames.
Whether the disco of “LoveStoned,” the buoyant, surprising highlight “Pusher Love Girl” (from Timberlake’s excellent recent album, “The 20/20 Experience”) or the brand new conga-and-horn breakdown, “Take Back the Night,” the band flowed through the shifts of tempo and tone with fluid perfection.
For his part, Jay Z made the Kids work, running through bits and pieces of jams, including “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Encore” and the new “Tom Ford.” In the process, he proved that he’s learned a lot since his failed tour with another superstar, R. Kelly (which disintegrated midway through due to clashing egos). He graciously allowed Timberlake to run the night, ceding just enough control to make it a virtually seamless collaborative effort.
But there were sour moments. Timberlake’s take on the Sinatra classic “New York, New York,” which led into Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” was weak, and it pinpointed a chink in the armor of an otherwise expert showman. He’s no Sinatra, even if the staging of the song was smart. In homage to Bob Fosse’s work in the 1970s with Liza Minnelli, Timberlake sang it in front of a red backdrop, with a single spotlight tracing his moves.
And Jay Z, though an obviously charismatic presence, didn’t take many chances with his material or offer evidence of much performance evolution. He’s been doing most of these tracks for years and can rap them in his sleep.
In fact, it’s perhaps notable that his biggest flub came on a new track he’s apparently yet to internalize. During “Tom Ford,” he seemed to lose himself midway through and had to stop the Kids and start that from the top. The masses didn’t seem to mind, nor should they have: The dude’s memorized as many verses in his life as Ezra Pound, and pushed them from brain to microphone with typical precision.
The non-Jigga peak? During Timberlake’s late-set thriller from 2006, “SexyBack,” he was joined onstage by the song’s producer, Timbaland. The influential mid-00s R&B jam that nudged the genre further toward electronic dance music features his trademark grunts. Timbaland grunted and more on Sunday. Wearing red leather pants and a black top, the Virginia Beach track master strutted slowly across the stage, urging his partner -- and the entire Rose Bowl -- along.
Few sensations are as impressive as a crowded stadium fully immersed in art, and voluminous emotions expressed during the Legends concert at times seemed to levitate the Bowl. My seat was in the ninth row, and when Jay Z dedicated “Young Forever” to the memory of Trayvon Martin and requested the crowd alight their cellphones in unison, the venue for a few blissful minutes sparkled like a diamond as big as, well, the Rose Bowl.
And sonically, the sound and sensation of being surrounded by so many fans singing along to “Suit & Tie” was irrefutable evidence of the power of music. While Timberlake did a slow-moving strut and Jay Z rhymed of truffle season, Tom Ford duds and “ass-tight denim,” few among the masses weren’t singing along.
Even a security guard, dressed in cheap polyester and donning not a gold chain but a lanyard, was feeling it. While she tried to control dancing fans as they seeped out into the aisles, she seemed to walk on air, lost in music -- and getting paid, to boot.
[For the Record, 1:46 p.m. July 29: An earlier version of this post said the Rose Bowl had a capacity of 90,000 for Sunday night’s event. In fact, the count was, according to LiveNation, approximately 60,000.]
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit