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There was no faulting Beyoncé’s entrance. A swell of chords so loud it caused a collective outbreak of goosebumps, an explosive pyrotechnic display spelling out her name – and there she was, in a silver cape soon discarded to reveal a tiny silver dress, socking “Crazy in Love” to us and dancing like a choreographed force of nature.
Most acts choose to close their set with their best-loved song. Beyoncé Knowles, however, is not one of pop’s mortals. “Thanks for coming out to the Beyoncé experience,” she told us imperiously: the celebrity habit of self-referral in the third person never sounded so Olympian. “Are you ready to be entertained?” she commanded. The audience screamed a delighted acquiescence.
Not since Tina Turner has there been such a forceful, hard-working performer. Beyoncé is essentially an old-fashioned soul star, big on lung-power and vocals that knock you back on your heels. Her choreography is at once wild – lots of ecstatic shaking of that magnificent mane of hair – and super-professional: not a foot put out of place, in spite of said feet being encased in hazardous- looking high heels.
Still only 25 years old, the Houston- born singer has been performing since childhood. Destiny’s Child, the girl group she led before going solo, began recording in 1990. Her life has been lived on stage, which perhaps explains why “the Beyoncé experience” felt ultra-rehearsed but not soulless or empty of life. Even the tears that coursed on cue down her cheeks at the end of an extravagant ballad seemed to come naturally to her.
Ah, the ballads: Beyoncé’s Achilles heel. They pop up with monotonous regularity in her albums, but she has yet really to nail the art of the slower number. The sing-along set-closer “Irreplaceable” was a partial exception: other gushy tracks tugged the show’s tempo out of shape. “Flaws and All”, the song that saw her turning on the waterworks, epitomised her inept handling of big emotive moments. A flabby recitation of gratitude for being loved, flaws and all, it concluded with a dancer dressed as an angel enfolding her in an awkward hug. Tears of laughter coursed down the audience’s cheeks.
Her vocals are too direct and dynamic to convey heartache or vulnerability. She is better at anger (“Ring the Alarm”) and empowerment (“Independent Women”) than maudlin avowals of love. Like Madonna, she projects a fierce will to succeed. “You survive racism, you survive sexism, you work harder,” she barked, introducing the Destiny’s Child hit “Survivor”: her tiny silver costume suddenly looked armour-plated.
An industrious all-female backing band, powered by no fewer than three drummers, reinforced her faith in the virtues of hard work. They overhauled the songs, giving them a percussive thrust that drew our attention away from the absence of collaborators such as Shakira, co-vocalist on the recent hit “Beautiful Liar”. Even the non- presence of Jay-Z, Beyoncé’s rapper- boyfriend, who made a surprise appearance the last time she played Wembley Arena, in 2003, was made to seem unimportant.
The glare of Beyoncé’s fame was enough on its own. “This is my show and I won’t let you go,” she sang furiously on “Ring the Alarm”, a siren-backed R&B blast that brooked no disagreement. Beyoncé wears her dazzling celebrity with the ease and lack of irony that only the very rich, the very beautiful and the very successful can muster, but she underpins it with a work ethic reminiscent of James Brown.
At its best, her show combined spectacle with raw hunger. If only she could cure her appetite for misbegotten ballads.
The US leg of the Beyoncé Experience Tour begins in the Superdome, New Orleans on July 6