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Timberlake's set sizzles with the sound of success

Justin Timberlake was all smiles Saturday night at Avalon.

He's got a good reason for that mischievous grin: The 25-year-old heartthrob has a secret that only those who've seen him on his current club tour are privy to. His sophomore solo release, ``Future Sex/Love Sounds," is going to be a great big hit.

If the Memphis native's spirited set a few years back at Axis was the eager work of a young job applicant with serious potential, Saturday night's 90-minute sizzler was the effort of a grown man not only assured the position is his but ready for a promotion.

Which explains why the former 'N Sync-er felt comfortable playing such a large chunk of ``Future Sex," not due out until Sept. 12, before a giddy sold-out crowd.

Adhering to the scripture of the holy trinity of pop soul -- Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson -- that guided Timberlake's 2002 debut, ``Justified," his new songs soared and dipped on the wings of instantly hummable melodies, singable hooks, and neck-snapping rhythms.

After a dramatic ``Cry Me a River" kicked things off, Timberlake -- natty in fedora, vest, tie, and trousers -- sat down at a keyboard and amped the crowd into a fevered call and response for ``Senorita."

The classic soul vibe of ``My Love," with its liquid wah-wah licks wedded to a modern bottom end, was the first of the new tracks to command attention. ``I Think That She Knows" sounded like a proud descendent of Prince's ``Controversy" with its fidgety guitar licks and racy lyrics.

Of the new stuff, however, ``What Goes Around" was the clear highlight. With its ``Cry Me a River"-style drop rhythm, intricate backing vocals, and hurt feelings, the song should generate similar waves of hysteria when Timberlake comes back to play arenas later this year.

Smiles aside, Timberlake -- who moved with sass and grace -- wasn't afraid to get ugly in service of a song. He did so several times, contorting his face to hit the sweet spot of his falsetto throughout the night.

When he did lean back to ``Justified," he dressed up the tunes with interpolations ranging from Seals & Crofts to Nirvana. The former's ``Summer Breeze" worked as a pleasantly languid intro to ``Take It From Here," while the latter's ``Smells Like Teen Spirit" was somewhat more clunkily inserted into a rendition of ``Like I Love You" that was getting by on its tightly wound beat very nicely on its own.

A couple of the ballads threatened a detour to snoozeville, but on balance Timberlake and his energized 12-piece band were drum tight, putting their back into the grooves when necessary and laying off in the right spots.

The regular set ended with an impossibly fluid take on ``Rock Your Body" that seamlessly integrated the bass line of Chic's ``Good Times" and appropriately left the crowd wanting more.

An encore of his simultaneously robotic and hot-blooded new single ``SexyBack" -- preceded by a verse and chorus of Eurythmics' ``Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" -- nicely fit the bill.

If sexy has in fact gone missing, Timberlake definitively brought it back Saturday night.

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