“What’s the difference between Sunderland FC and Beyoncé?
Only one can fill the Stadium of Plight,” one wag tweeted on Tuesday morning. Others wondered whether Sunderland, the first town to declare for leave in the EU referendum, would mistake the track Freedom, from Beyoncé’s current album, Lemonade, as a Brexit endorsement. But there were few such cynics among the near-capacity (tickets were still available, and selling for under face value before the show) crowd at the first European date of the Formation world tour.
Beyoncé has been opening her shows by advising audiences to shout “I slay!” – a canny way of spreading the fierceness. She is such a motherlode of confidence that she retired her Sasha Fierce alter ego several years ago because Sasha’s work was done: Beyoncé had integrated her private shyness and public forcefulness into the colossus Queen Bey, as she’s known to her Beyhive fanbase. No other female singer is currently as influential; she’s using her platform – and what a platform; the US leg of the tour grossed up to $11m a night – not just to sell her new Lemonade album, but to advocate for #blacklivesmatter, especially the lives of black women and girls, whose stories are in the fabric of Lemonade.
One thing she can’t control is the weather; it’s hard to credit that she would let a mere drizzle stop play, but she was 45 minutes late. When she appeared, in the first of a dozen spangled leotards and flanked by a battalion of dancers, she instantly got the crowd onside by commanding, “If you’re proud of who you are and where you’re from, say: ‘I slay’!”
Seeming at once imperious and near-approachable is her speciality. Performing Lemonade’s bitterest songs – Sorry and Don’t Hurt Yourself, which address her husband Jay Z’s unfaithfulness – she’s a pillar of rage; minutes later, she’s the proud mother, showing a picture of her daughter.
Even the interludes were heavy with concept. While she changed costumes, excerpts from Lemonade’s videos played across a large screen: here a razor blade emerges from her mouth, there she drives a monster truck, then her video image whispers: “Rest in peace, my true love.”
Beyoncé undoubtedly slays, whether by casually unfurling an early track, Me, Myself and I, that displayed her voice’s richness, or by maintaining an intimidating chill during the anti-police brutality track Formation. Then there was the moment during Freedom when she executed a heavy-limbed ballet in a tank of water – in short, she cannot be accused of neglecting the visual side of performance. There are times, though, when her glittering magnificence and the pounding, brutalist rhythms of the new album induced a desire for a moment’s respite.
There are unexpected moments of levity, however, and plenty of genuine smiles – during an a cappella version of Love on Top, sung while seated, she seemed sincerely delighted to be in the nippy north-east, with only pyrotechnics to ward off the chill.
Disgracefully, the glorious Crazy in Love and Bootylicious were dispatched in a three-minute medley towards the end, but that’s her royal prerogative. As the stadium slowly emptied, nobody looked to have been short-changed.
This article was written by Caroline Sullivan, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 29th June 2016 00.08 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010