There are ways to start a show and ways to start a show. And then there's the Beyoncé way. Almost entirely obscured by smoke, she stalks out alone on to the vast arena stage and strikes a pose in silhouette. The lights go up and there she shimmers – in spangly gold leotard and stilettos, her leonine locks blowing in a breeze that follows her, and only her, wherever she moves. The extraordinary ensemble is topped (or should that be bottomed) off by the most enormous gold-sequined bow on her ever-undulating booty. She's joined by two dancers in PVC catsuits and a sassy all-female band who, to hysterical whoops from the crowd, push out the opening horn blasts of "Crazy in Love", Beyoncé's brassiest and most joyous tune and one of the finest pop songs of the last decade. A couple more PVC-clad dancers emerge, canons on either side of the stage puff clouds of glitter out over the crowd – and we're off.
It's a bold move to open a show with your best song, but then the 27-year-old Texan diva can afford to be bold. In the last six months alone, she has scored her highest-selling UK single with "If I Were a Boy", sung for the First Couple at Barack Obama's inauguration and spawned an internet dance sensation with "Single Ladies" (the show's climax, introduced by a hilarious montage of YouTube tributes). Tonight, whether it's the power balladry of "Listen", the dancehall grind of "Baby Boy" or the electro hook of "Diva", she sings her heart out. This is an astonishingly high-energy show, the ambitious choreography barely grazing her perfect, lung-busting vocals which run from caramel smooth to honeyed foghorn.
This tour is linked to her third solo release, I Am... Sasha Fierce, a two-disc concept album divided into her usual R&B fare and dancier, dirtier electro-tinged tunes. The latter encapsulate her on-stage alter-ego, Sasha Fierce – who on tonight's evidence looks just like Beyoncé, only with more make-up, directional hair and a better sense of humour. In fact, the show's generous run of around 30 songs introduces us to any number of different Beyoncés – showgirl, balladeer, feminist, rock chick, gangster queen, cyborg – via off-stage costume changes and a leotard for every mood, including one which looks like the front end of a Harley-Davidson, complete with flashing headlamps.
After an exhilarating start, the show divides into an evening of two halves – just like B herself. An early run of album tracks are impressively executed but aren't as strong as her older material or the singles. And there's an exceedingly odd segment when Beyoncé morphs into a bridal monster in gravity-defying crinoline and veil and sings "Ave Maria" in an operatic soprano. The pace picks up again with "If I Were a Boy", for which Beyoncé dons Ray Bans and a leather breastplate to whip up a quasi-feminist singalong.
These free, communal moments are the best of the night. With little interaction for the first hour, watching Beyoncé sing and strut her stuff can feel at best overawing, at worst, alienating. She takes her role as entertainer so seriously she's almost too good.
It's down to a man in trunks to bang a gong and herald the second, better half. Beyoncé floats into the air on a swing, and flies over the crowd, turning somersaults on the way, before landing on a stage in the middle of the arena. From there, she leads the audience in the "to the left, to the left" chorus of "Irreplaceable" and launches into a roof-raising Destiny's Child medley.
She finishes with the big hitters – Etta James's "At Last", accompanied by Obama footage (prompting the biggest cheer of the night), an uplifting "Listen" from Dreamgirls, a tireless "Single Ladies" and a sweeping encore of "Halo". It's a neat encapsulation of all her many facets. Truly, a diva for every occasion.
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