At Coachella, Beyoncé gave the performance she should have given at the Super Bowl. Granted, she had an hour and 45 minutes to work with at the desert festival Saturday night, versus only 13 minutes to work with at that gig five years ago. But if the network, NFL, Ravens, 49ers and their fans had seen what we saw at the Empire Polo Grounds, surely they would have agreed by acclimation to, you know, just put the third quarter off by an hour and a half.
Part of the brilliance of Saturday’s set was that it was more of a half-time show than her half-time show, in that she took the marching band that has been persona non grata at the Bowl for years and built a 105-minute performance around overpacked horn charts, glorified drum majorettes and nonstop drumline insanity. Who would’ve guessed the missing ingredients needed to ratchet her catalog a step up into greatness were exceptionally arranged tubas and timbales? It was an over-the-top Busby Berkeley Hollywood musical brought to the modern day by way of the great HBCU marching units of the South, and it was fairly glorious.
The show served as testament not only to Beyoncé as the premier musical performer of our time, but a tribute to the power of the non-disclosure agreement. Only recently did reports emerge that the singer had hired about a hundred backup performers — the actual number was probably a little less, though the cast never stood still long enough for anyone to count — and even then, as rehearsals involved locking down a stage in L.A. for at least three months, virtually nothing about the nature of the performance leaked out, except for rumors about another Destiny’s Child reunion… which ended up being true, even if that part was a nearly superfluous cherry atop the blitz. (Probably any backup performer considering violating the NDA thought of how much worse they’d get it than Jay-Z did on “Lemonade.”)
While a YouTube audience waited at home for the feed to go live, the Coachella audience (comprised of the better part of the 125,000 in attendance for the day) saw nothing but 11 staggered rows of spotlights. Come the appointed minute, the platform holding those lights rose and revealed her cast of dozens, including not only a marching-in-place band but violin players, plus contortionists, “Bug A Boo” Greek-pledge male dancers, and a baton twirler to beat all baton twirlers. Coming down the walkway, mid-audience, Beyoncé initially appeared in your basic modest Egyptian queen ensemble, then quickly switched to cutoff jeans. That was the first of, surprisingly, only a couple of true costume changes: Part of the cleverness of this show was that it was staged as a series of variations on one epic production, not the series of separate vignettes you get on a typical super-diva tour.
Nearly two dozen tracks got at least a partial hearing, from the opening “Crazy in Love,” the hit whose sampled horn charts surely provoked the supersized version here, to her greatest recent single, “Freedom” — which gave way to an extended coda of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the black national anthem — to opportunities for Jay-Z, Solange and the two-thirds of Destiny’s Child to say their name. The Jack White-assisted stab at Jay, “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” occasioned an additional costume change from friendly yellow to a steelier acrylic black. Some snippets were so short they didn’t even appear on the backstage setlist, like a few lines of “Irreplaceable.” For a while it seemed like the only flaw of the show might be not taking a moment to breathe amid all the medley-izing… and then she stopped to sing the tender, unhurried “Love on Top,” and even that slight objection melted away.
It’s hard for anyone in the room, as it were, to know how it came off to the home viewers it was just as much designed for — although one suspects we’ll soon get a reprise with some sort of home video release. But on the premises, this sustained gambit of a rocking R&B show felt historic. Could Michael Jackson, who was best in micro-moments, not at long-form conceptual shows, have pulled off something like this? Does mentioning her in the same breath of a Gene Kelly do justice to her dancing and conceptual abilities, but not her voice, which would be superstar-making enough? Comparisons were already hard enough to come by before this show, fairly unique in the annals of massively scaled pop one-offs, upped the ante even more. The precision of the choreography and sheer work ethic could’ve made the production seem more intimidating than ingratiating … but there was real joy in Beyoncé’s performance, too, not just genius and sweat.
“I was supposed to perform at Coachella before,” she told the crowd — unnecessarily for the live part of the audience, probably, many of whom saw Lady Gaga as her fill-in last year — “but I ended up getting pregnant. So I had time to dream and dream and dream with two beautiful souls in my belly, and I dreamed up this performance.” If the hormones really did help with that, a lot of creatives would love to have what she was having.
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