Above and Beyoncé: 1st Mariner Arena, June 23, 2009
| Image by Frank Hamilton
“I AM…YOURS”: these were the last words to leave the mouth of Beyoncé Knowles Tuesday night at the 1st Mariner Arena, and the final message projected onto the gigantic video screen behind the band. It was both a gracious thank you to her fans, whom she left screaming as if they wanted more following a two-hour-and-change concert spectacle, as it was the young woman’s operating mantra for the set. From the moment she appeared center stage in stark silhouette, Knowles spent the evening moving, bumping, grinding, dancing, singing, chatting, smiling, welcoming, and thanking the audience, her three watch-out-for-the-big-girls back-up singers, her 10-piece all-female band, the five female dancers, the four male dancers, the four-woman opening act RichGirl, the tech crew, the lighting crew, and just about every single person who might have had anything to do with helping her make this show the most-est best-est fun thing to do that evening. She wasn’t exaggerating: The show was, in fact, more fun than a bed full of puppies. And girlfriend works onstage to take you there. No joke.
This well-paced and exhaustingly choreographed show kicked off with the horn-powered “Crazy in Love,” which the band opened up a little bit for a short sax solo from the heavy-blowing reedswoman, and moved straight into “Naughty Girl,” sexed up with a rocking arrangement that translated the song’s slinky rhythm into a stalking guitar line. Throughout the show’s opening salvo Knowles wore a sparkly, sequined mini-dress—gold in the front, silver in the back—that featured a bow the size of a small animal on her bum, the sort of accent even skinny women avoid more than carbs and which Knowles, of course, effortlessly pulled off. By the time Knowles and her band—two keyboards, two drummers, one percussionist, one bassist, one guitarist, tenor and alto sax and a trumpeter, all clad in curve hugging varieties of black—hit “Get Me Bodied,” the concert was already an up-tempo bash.
And then the wardrobe changes started. During the “do the Naomi Campbell walk” part of the extended version of “Bodied,” the dancers took over en masse, providing Knowles with a chance to exit and make another grand entrance, this time atop a set of stairs that rose from the stage, clad in a body-hugging white mini-dress and hooded cape. She sidled into a few slower numbers, establishing the concert’s roller-coaster shape: some bangers, some ballads/mid-tempo jams, lather, rinse, repeat. During these early ballads the mix was a tad flat, with even Knowles’ powerful pipes getting swallowed by the reverberating volume inside the arena. It was a sonic flaw that was fine-tuned away by the time Knowles’ onstage wardrobe upgrade—into a Road Warrior-meets-dominatrix black leather mini-skirt and bustier get-up—led into “If I Were a Boy,” complete with nightstick-swinging, handcuff-accessorized backup dancers stomping and strutting behind her. Smack in the middle of the song, Knowles and the band broke into a verse and chorus of Alanis Morrissette’s 1990s you-go-Canadian-white-girl anthem “You Oughta Know” that was, quite frankly, fabulous. And I loathe that song.
But such is Knowles’ charisma: She makes even annoyingly gooey hokum such as Sarah Maclachlan’s “Angel”—yes, she did—work. It helps that she’s got a solid stage sneer and smiles more often than not—and that the show is such a nonstop rush. A good 75 percent of her songs feature multiple dance sequences, and if anybody is missing a beat, it’s difficult to notice. All you see if Knowles singing, dancing, kicking, dancing, dropping her bum to floor and bouncing immediately back up, singing, freaking singing, dancing, strutting, and even getting into a harness to be hoisted above the floor seats and transported to a second stage toward the back of the arena, doing an aerial flip en route—and always in heels high enough to make you dizzy. Your thighs and abs burned just watching her.
Soon Knowles was moving into her back catalog; “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Say My Name,” “Bootylicious,” “Independent Woman Part 1″ all got a brief run-through, whether by Knowles herself or in some abridged musical interlude, and served as a disarming reminder of just how many pop and R&B hits the 28-year-old singer has been a part of ever since Destiny’s Child came roaring out of Houston in 1998. So, yes, Beyoncé live in concert does involve a little bit of narcissism: Stands for L’Oreal cosmetics, with whom she has an endorsement deal, were found in the 1st Mariner lobby and brief ads for her House of Dereon ready-to-wear fashion line played on the in-house video screens prior to the show. And during her admittedly gorgeous version of the song forever associated with Etta James, Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s “At Last,” archival footage of the civil rights era played on the screen behind Knowles, into which footage had been cut of Knowles’ turn as James in Cadillac Records, a video sequence that eventually faded from black-and-white footage of Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington to color footage of Barack Obama’s January inauguration and Knowles performance of this same song as the newly elected president danced with his wife. Presumptuous? Yes. Pyrotechnically effective? Absofuckinglutely.
But you can make such bold statements when you’ve become such a cultural presence that Forbes ranks you in the top 10 of its World’s Most Powerful Celebrities, behind only such little-known forces of nature as Angelina Jolie, Oprah Winfrey, and Madonna. And yet, still, Knowles ends her show thanking everybody in the room—and during her final number, “Halo,” actually leaving the stage to shake hands and work the front rows like a visiting dignitary, but never putting herself above the fans. In fact, the evening’s highlights were the set’s most interactive numbers. For a rousing version of “Irreplaceable,” Knowles encouraged the entire arena to sing in her stead, accompanied only by guitar. (Knowles and the full band came in on the second verse.) And an energetic “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” was preceded by a video montage of the seemingly endless homemade versions of song’s video dance moves that drew as enthusiastic of a response as Knowles and two dancers did recreating the choreography onstage. And it’s little, inclusive details such as that which make such potentially shallow showbiz flourishes as proclaiming “I am yours” feel like anything but an empty gesture.