Monday, November 16, 2009

Gig review: Beyoncé at the O2

It has been an astonishing 12 years since Beyoncé recorded her first album with Destiny's child, at the tender age of 16. Since then, she has been at the forefront of R&B, shaping and redfining the genre's sonic boundaries with every self-penned release.

But we know precious little about the woman herself. The only glimpses we've had behind the curtain came on Survivor - a triumphant two fingers to the girls who quit Destiny's Child - and the B'Day album, which strongly hinted that Jay-Z had cheated on his future wife.

The star's I Am... tour promises to reveal the megastar's true nature. It's not just about the Beyoncé / Sasha Fierce alter-egos of her recent double album (Sasha is essentially Beyoncé with up-tempo songs and more eyeliner) but all the different aspects of her personality. Here's what we learned on the night.

I Am... an incredibly talented singer
I Am... the best dancer in the business
I Am... promoting women by hiring an all-female band
I Am... immensely proud of singing at Obama's inaugural ball
I Am... wearing a frock shaped like a motorbike
I Am... having convulsions of grief over Michael Jackson
I Am... apologetic for the problems on the Jubilee line
I Am... in a wedding dress for no particular reason
I Am... quite unhinged

Seriously, Beyoncé was a twirling cyclone of demented energy. Pumping her arms, gyrating her hips, screaming nonsense at the crowd ("it's not your birthday!?!") and whipping the entire auditorium into a histrionic frenzy. I have never heard a crowd make so much noise. Girls were literally shaking with excitement, just like in archive footage of Beatles' concerts, and when Jay-Z and Kanye West made mini on-stage cameos, it was actually impossible to hear them over the explosion of oestrogen.

As mrsdiscopop said to me afterwards, it's not often you get to see an icon at the height of their powers - and it's even less often that you get to hear them.

When things died down, however, you realised what a precise and powerful vocalist Beyoncé is. Amid all the eye-popping choreography and Thierry Mugler costumes, the star's voice sparkled effortlessly. As she went round shaking the crowd's hands and kissing babies during Halo, it seemed like the falsetto trills were an absent-minded afterthought - just something she was doing as a background task while getting on with the real business of being a pop star.

The show had none of the circus-style distractions of recent shows by Beyoncé's closest rivals, Madonna and Britney. There were no pyrotechnics and no props - just singing, dancing and real, live music. The huge video screen backdrop would often fade to white, leaving the musicians in a Motown revue-style silhouette while Beyoncé simply got on with her performance. Not many performers would be so brave but, in this case, it paid off.

A few minor gripes - it would have been nice to hear more of the Destiny's Child material, which was largely dispensed with in a two-minute medley, and was it really necessary for every ballad to contain a dramatic "you really love me" pause just before the last line?

But it's hard to fault a show with so much heart and conviction. Beyoncé never gave the (sadly all-too-common) impression she was filling time until the encore. It genuinely seemed that, having fulfilled the dreams of the little girl we saw in Knowles family home videos between the songs, she never wanted to leave the stage.

And that was probably the most revealing thing of all*.

*Except the costumes.

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