Look, there’s really no other way to say it: Beyoncé’s headlining performance Saturday night at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in 20 years of professional show-going.
The scale, the reach, the detail — and the feeling — simply put it on a level higher than those on which most other artists operate.
And Beyoncé knew it.
“I was supposed to perform at Coachella before,” she said with a grin near the end of show, referring to the 2017 edition of the annual mega-festival at Indio’s Empire Polo Club. “But I ended up pregnant.” That allowed her the time, continued the mother of 10-month-old twins, “to dream” up something big “with two souls in my belly.”
Did she really spend a year planning Saturday’s concert?
But then again…
Described in a booming introductory voice-over as “Beyoncé Homecoming 2018,” the gig served as a warm and vivid tribute to America’s historically black colleges and universities, a concept she was clearly tying to her role — as she happily pointed out onstage — as the first black woman to headline Coachella. (“Ain’t that ‘bout a b****,” she added in a pitch-perfect aside.)
She was accompanied by approximately 100 dancers and musicians, including brass and string players, a drum line and a baton twirler; at several points, Beyoncé disappeared to change costumes and was replaced in the spotlight by a lively step squad.
The thoroughness of the presentation, with skits and long dance routines and radical rearrangements of some of Beyoncé’s best-known songs, was staggering — miles beyond what even the most ambitious of Coachella’s other performers are bringing to the desert.
“Freedom,” riding a heavy groove played on sousaphones, suddenly morphed into a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the black national anthem. “Sorry” sprouted a hilarious and salty call-and-response chant that can’t be printed here. “Drunk in Love,” which Beyoncé sang from atop a rotating cherry picker, sounded as woozily festive as New Orleans funeral music.
One way you could tell how much effort Beyoncé and her team had put into the show was from the precisely composed images being fed to the enormous screens flanking the stage (and to YouTube, which livestreamed the performance).
Typically that type of camera work is pretty straightforward. But here it was designed like a movie, bringing the viewer’s attention to granular elements — like one drummer’s facial expression as she busted out military-grade paradiddles — that you couldn’t see from even the closest position on the polo grounds.
Still, for all the careful integration of the action onstage, Beyoncé was undeniably the focus as she delivered songs from throughout her catalog: early hits such as a triumphant “Crazy in Love” and a creamy “Me, Myself and I”; mid-period material like an impassioned “I Care” and a deliriously funky “Get Me Bodied” (for which she brought out her sister, Solange, to dance with her); and stuff from 2016’s “Lemonade,” including “Formation” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which the brass players gave the vibe of a James Bond theme.
Solange wasn’t Beyoncé’s only guest. The singer’s husband, Jay-Z, showed up to do his verse from “Déjà Vu.”
And as rumored beforehand, Beyoncé staged a brief reunion of Destiny’s Child to squeals of excitement from the audience; the influential girl group remade its classic “Say My Name” as a lustrous soul jam that made you long to hear what kind of new music Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams might make together now as women in their mid-to-late 30s.
Again, Beyoncé was obviously the sun in these collaborative moments; you never forgot that it was her gravitational force that had brought these other stars into orbit.
Yet the presence of family reinforced the valuable sense of community she was getting at with the show’s clever and heartfelt HBCU vibe.
Her hard work wasn’t for her alone, she seemed to be saying.
It was something to be shared.
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