Beyonce, Echo Arena, Liverpool
The Flaming Lips, Troxy, London
It's professional and all a bit plastic, but Beyonce still glisters in her bustle
Sunday 15 November 2009
If you were to brick
Beyoncé Knowles into an airtight room with no windows and doors – a disproportionate response, arguably, to her assorted crimes against pop – the singer’s hair would, I’m convinced, continue to billowas it does throughout her concerts. Such is the air of unreality Knowles exudes that her different-sized eyes, giving her a mischievous squint, are the only proof that she didn’t come straight out of the Real Doll factory.
She’s objectively beautiful, without doubt, and an aspirational figure for the spray-tanned Scousers inside the Echo Arena. But sexy? Her own BBW backing singers deliver Diana’s “Love Hangover” with more sass than Beyoncé herself could ever muster.
But she gives good show, in a professional, plasticised sort of way. Backed by her awesome all-woman (and, incidentally, all-black) band and flanked by a frankly average troupe of hoofers, strutting through dry ice with a spangly bow-shaped bustle above her famous buttocks, she opens with “Crazy in Love”, a song which, had she just played it 15 times back to back, would make a better concert than the actual one, especially in front of a crowd for at least half of whom the lyrical tribute to an Anfield legend (“Sami Hyypia’s crazy right now”) has special significance.
There’s a sufficient level of spectacle, with the star appearing on screen as a robo-leopard, getting hoisted on a trapeze over the audience’s heads in a 20ft gold dress and so on.
She has the personal touch too, or at least has learned how to fake it. There’s the faintest flicker of Appletonesque disgust when she first slaps fingers with a competition winner (“Ugh, I touched a commoner!”), but she’s soon in her element, letting them grab her shiny-tighted ankles, and bonding with an androgynous girl with a Beautiful Nightmare tattoo.
As a vocalist Beyoncé is almost as virulent as Whitney, her pseudo-vibrato infecting every X Factor finalist except the novelty ones. The material does improve the further back in time you travel. There are a couple of Destiny's Child megamixes, but "Independent Women", "Bug-a-Boo", and "Bootylicious" only show up the weaknesses in her solo catalogue.
The show is padded with covers, such as Dawn Penn's "No No No", a Bollywoodised burst of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby", snatches of Alanis's "You Oughta Know", and a setpiece in which this good Methodist girl, clad in a see-through wedding dress, sings "Ave Maria".
Some songs are invested with more meaning than others in this former slave-trade hub. Etta James's "At Last" – Barack and Michelle Obama's first dance at the inauguration – is accompanied by footage of the civil rights struggles and Obama's victory. "Halo" is interrupted by a clip of Baby Beyoncé, with Daddy Knowles telling his little princess he was taking her to a Michael Jackson concert. "That's the night I experienced the magic of Michael Jackson for the first time," she explains. "That's the night I decided what I wanted to be." The song switches into a full-scale Jacko tribute as she urges us to wave glow sticks in his memory. It's what he would have wanted.
The low point arrives with the rancidly reactionary sexual politics of "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)". After a montage of videos by fans performing their own dance routines, Beyoncé – who isn't wearing a ring herself – reappears to provide the unedifying sight of a hall full of working-class women being told by their idol that the way to get on in the world is to snare a husband. Put a ring on it? Put a sock in it.
There are two competing views on the value of the avant-garde. One is that experimentation has intrinsic worth. The other – and this is my own position – is that experimenters should remain obscure toilers at the coalface of ideas, bringing back crazy new sounds so that someone else can use them for making brilliant pop music.
The Flaming Lips are that rare thing: a go-between, a band who do the experimenting and make the brilliant pop. Now and then, therefore, they need to make an album like Embryonic, their current collection of frazzled jams. You'd listen to the Lips doing this sort of thing sooner than anyone else, but one hopes they're just recharging their batteries to come back with the mother of all mind-blowing future-pop masterpieces.
Nevertheless, Wayne Coyne is a man who instinctively understands that a rock concert is about communal catharsis and euphoria, so the current Lips' live show begins in much the same manner as their others. He steps out from what can only be described as a pulsating electronic vagina and rolls over the heads of the crowd in a giant inflatable hamster ball. Then masses of balloons are released; there's a Crimean fusillade of confetti cannons, and the band bursts into "Race for the Prize" while a dozen sheep, or possibly polar bears, dance their furry approval. For the first five minutes, it's the greatest gig you've seen in your life.
Thereafter, it's a bit one-note by Flips standards. As a result, the set sags in the middle, especially when they delve deep into the Embryonic material. The grizzled Jesus of psych-pop senses the energy dip, and works the crowd to compensate.
There's no room for "She Don't Use Jelly" or "Talking 'Bout the Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues", but we do get "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", "The Fight Song" and the feelgood finale of "Do You Realize?", a profoundly atheist song which has, improbably and inspiringly, been adopted as the official state song of God-fearing Oklahoma.
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