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Justin Bieber saves the best for last in Charlotte concert

By Theoden Janes
tjanes@charlotteobserver.com

There’s a pretty large segment of society that has written off Justin Bieber as a joke, or at least the punch line of a joke – an over-produced, over-hyped pre-fab piece of sticky-sweet pop.

Then there’s the also-sizeable part of civilization that views him as the total package, someone with young-Brad Pitt-ian good looks, Michael Jackson-esque dance moves, a keen sense of musicality. The new King of Pop, if you will.

Based on his performance during a sold-out concert at Time Warner Cable Arena on Tuesday night, it seems neither point of view is quite right, and neither is quite wrong.

Bieber, who turns 19 in March, certainly looks the part. Though still slender in build, he’s also filled out and toned up his frame, and his wardrobe choices – various shiny jackets, various sagging pants, a simple white tank top – hang off of it coolly.

Plus, all the moves he’s ripped from the Usher school of dance are confident and eye-catching, a never-ending sequence of stutter steps, hip thrusts, slides and shuffles, crotch grabs, hand jives, chest thumps and shadow punches.

Things get murkier, though, when trying to assess Bieber’s vocals. All that high-energy dancing necessitates some degree of lip-synching; problem is, the lip-synching comes off as lip-synchy (as well as auto-tuned), while the songs he clearly sang – the acoustic “Fall” being one of them – came off as listenable yet still rough around the edges.

The biggest sin he commits? A poorly designed set list. He frontloaded his 98-minute show with (mostly) less-popular songs from the new album, “Believe,” then crammed all of his bona-fide hits into the last half-hour.

Early on, his fans (predominately female, predominately under 21) shrieked in delight over a 20-minute warmup set by Cody Simpson, half a dozen songs by “Call Me Maybe” star Carly Rae Jepsen, a countdown clock that ticked down the 10 minutes before his arrival onstage. When he appeared at first in silhouette, pandemonium. When he shouted “What’s up, Charlotte?,” rapture. But by the time the 10th song rolled around, kids were tugging on their parents’ arms, asking, “Is he going to do ‘Beauty and a Beat’ soon?”

If stodgy shows like the Academy Awards ceremony know to throw in a best supporting actor or actress early on in order to keep viewers’ appetites sated, so should the Biebs.

Finally, more than an hour in, the peppy “Never Say Never” gave the crowd a shot of adrenaline after the sleepy “Fall.” Then “Beauty and a Beat” – the best song Bieber’s ever made – had fans frothing, “One Less Lonely Girl” killed, and “As Long As You Love Me” destroyed.

After getting on the piano for “Believe,” a boring choice to set up the encore (why pretend to sign off with the gospel-flavored “Believe,” a sentimental favorite for the artist but a total buzz-kill for an audience that just wants to finally hear “Baby,” goshdarnit?), “Boyfriend” and “Baby” sent the crowd home deliriously happy.

Of course, these were fans that would have gone home happy if he had sung Chapter 4 of “The Hunger Games.” These were fans that lined up to buy $35 T-shirts with big smiles on their faces, and probably would have paid $50 for them if you’d switched the price tags. These were fans, quite simply, who were just happy to be there, just happy to get a glimpse of Bieber’s all-grown-up abs when he went shirtless underneath his unbuttoned jacket late in the evening.

They didn’t even necessarily need the multi-level set, the elaborate accoutrements (including the Matrix-y pair of angel wings he “wore” to open the show), the giant video screens, the archival-footage montages, the LED lights, the pyrotechnics and confetti, the dozen backup dancers.

They just wanted to scream at the top of their lungs for the guy they think is the King of Pop, and the louder they screamed, the truer that notion seemed.

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