Adam Blackstone is getting ready to fly away to the biggest gig of his life.
Like an Eagle.
“God could not have written this any better for my life,” says the 35-year-old bass player and music director, talking on the phone from the airport in Philadelphia. He’s waiting to board a flight to Minneapolis, where he will lead a 15-piece band during Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII halftime show on Sunday.
“I couldn’t have scripted it any better,” the bandleader says. “Last week when I was watching the game against the Vikings, I was getting so emotional. Even now, thinking about it, I’m getting emotional.
“Sports brings up memories of different times in your life, where you remember what you were doing, and who you were with when certain teams won and certain teams lost. I remember where I was when T.O. broke his ankle.” (He’s referring to Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in the season that led to the team’s last Super Bowl appearance, in 2005.)
“I remember when Michael Vick got out of jail, and the first place he came was Philly. And me and my Dad, and all those times we would watch when I was a child … So it’s very emotional for me to be able to contribute to [the Eagles’] success in any type of way. If I was just going, I would be so happy. But now that I’m actually involved in a game that could end up with my team being world champions? What a great feeling, you know?”
Blackstone was born in Trenton, where his uncle Eric Jackson is mayor. After the family moved when he was 4, he was raised in Willingboro.
He started as a drummer, playing at the Old Bethel Baptist Church in Trenton and the Union AME Church in Allentown, N.J. In second grade, “all the little black boys in Willingboro played drums. The music teacher was like: ‘We need a bass player.’ And I was like, ‘Hell, no! This is whack. I got to carry this thing home every day from school?’ ”
Blackstone soon matured.
In 2000, he moved to Philadelphia to study music at the University of the Arts and started hanging at Black Lily, the Tuesday night jam session at the Five Spot in Old City that also nurtured John Legend and Jill Scott, among others.
There, he met Richard Nichols, manager of the Roots, who died in 2014. “He changed my life,” says Blackstone, who lives in Middletown, Del., with his wife, Kaisha, and their son, Adam Jr. “He introduced me to people I needed to be introduced to.”
Through Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Blackstone landed a job in Jay-Z’s touring band, and he was a backing musician in 2005’s Dave Chappelle’s Block Party movie. (He dropped out of UArts in 2003 when he got busy on the road but eventually graduated in 2013. “I promised my mother I would finish, and I did!”)
One job has led to another. Working with Jay-Z, “I met this little funny-faced kid with a pink polo shirt named Kanye West. Then a skinny little island girl named Rihanna said, ‘I’m going to be big someday. You should work with me.’ ”
“It’s about forging those relationships,” Blackstone says. “You never know who ‘the next’ is going to be, so you have to be a nice person to everyone.”
He’s assisted a long line of A-listers: Janet Jackson, the Jonas Brothers, Maroon 5, Eminem, Al Green, Dr. Dre.
“I like to tell my young guys: ‘This gig is the audition for the next gig.’ I’m about to play the Super Bowl, which is huge. But this is my audition for Eric Clapton. Or for Paul McCartney. Or the Stones.”
His pinned tweet shows the Blackstones with President Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House, taken when he directed the 44th president’s farewell concert on BET in January 2017. Last weekend, he led the band at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party honoring Jay-Z.
— Adam Blackstone (@adamblackstone) January 20, 2017
In 2013, Blackstone began working with Timberlake. He directed the former N’Syncer’s band the Tennessee Kids on the 20/20 Experience tour and stadium jaunt with Jay-Z that year. He’ll be running the show for Timberlake on the Man of the Woods tour, which hits the Wells Fargo Center on June 2.
Blackstone remembers not so well the Eagles’ loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005. The year before, he watched the infamous Timberlake-Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” from his couch in Willingboro, never dreaming he’d be on the supersize stage himself.
He’s never talked to Timberlake about the incident, but he did speak with him about Jackson recently. “He wanted to reach out to her and knew that I had worked for her.” Blackstone says the two stars did meet “and I heard it was very productive.”
So that means Jackson will reunite with Timberlake on the Super Bowl LII stage on Sunday, right?
“I cannot confirm or deny,” the bandleader says.
In Minneapolis, Timberlake’s show will last 13 minutes, with every second exhaustively rehearsed. Due to the magnitude of the event, precautions will be taken. The band will record a version of their instrumental backing in advance, and then play live on Sunday, with a backup available in case of emergency.
“If my bass cord comes out, or the snare drum mic cord comes out, we’ll have a safety of that performance,” Blackstone says. Timberlake’s vocals, however, will not be taped in advance. “He sings live-live. All the way live.”
At the Grammys, Blackstone took the opportunity to ask Beyoncé and Bruno Mars and their music directors for tips based on their Super Bowl experiences. Their advice? “Mix [the sound] for television, don’t mix for the live audience. Don’t worry about the 80,000 in the building, worry about the 80 million watching at home.”
(The audience is almost certain to be over 100 million in the U.S. alone, actually.)
Blackstone’s rules of music-directing will apply to Timberlake’s show on Sunday, as they always do.
“I still get nervous, and that lets me know I care,” he says. “I could be going to church to play, or I could be doing the Super Bowl.
“The key to being a good music director is opening your ears to listen to everyone around you. Whether it be horn parts, string parts, percussion parts. When it’s great, the whole band is great. Collectively, we come together to make sure our greatness is displayed.”
“But — and here’s the main point — our greatness is displayed through the artist and through the music. Because I’m just trying to enhance what they’re doing. I’m never trying to outshine who I’m working for.”