Beyonce’s Coachella show a marvel
INDIO, Calif. — There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyonce’s headlining set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival over the weekend.
It was rich with history, potently political and visually grand. By turns uproarious, rowdy and lush. A gobsmacking marvel of choreography and musical direction.
Saturday night’s performance on Coachella main stage on the grounds of the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, started with horns: trumpets, trombones, sousaphones. For most of the night, the 36-yearold star was backed by an ecstatic marching band, in the manner of football halftime shows at historically black colleges. The choice instantly reoriented her music, sidelining its connections to pop and framing it squarely in a lineage of Southern black musical traditions from New Orleans’ second line marches to Houston’s chopped-andscrewed hip-hop.
Her arrangements were alive with shifts between styles and oodles of small details, quick musical quotations of songs (Pastor Troy’s “No Mo’ Play in G.A.,” anyone?) that favored alertness and engagement. As always, one of the key thrills of a Beyonce performance is her willingness to dismantle and rearrange her most familiar hits. “Drunk in Love” began as bass-thick molasses, then erupted into trumpet confetti. “Bow Down” reverberated with nervy techno. “Formation,” already a rapturous march, was a savage low-end stomp. And during a brief trip through the Caribbean part of her catalog, she remade “Baby Boy” as startling Jamaican big-band jazz.
She does macro, too: She was joined onstage by approximately 100 dancers, singers and musicians, a stunning tableau that included fraternity pledges and drumlines and rows of female violinists in addition to the usual crackerjack backup dancers (who included bone breakers and also dancers performing elaborate routines with cymbals).
Some superstars prize effortlessness, but Beyonce shows her work: The cameras captured the force and determination in her dancing, and also her sweat. Beyonce performed for almost two hours, with only a few breaks, and her voice rarely flagged. She was originally meant to perform at Coachella last year, but rescheduled after becoming pregnant; she returns to the Coachella stage next weekend for the last of her two solo U.S. dates this year.
“Thank you for allowing me to be the first black woman to headline Coachella,” she said midset, then added an aside indicating such a breakthrough should have happened much sooner.
She was arguing not in defense of herself, but of her forebears. And her performance was as much ancestral tribute and cultural continuum — an uplifting of black womanhood — as contemporary concert. She sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black national anthem, she incorporated vocal snippets of Malcolm X and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she nodded at Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine.”
And she rendered her personal history as well. During the second half of the show, she unfurled a kind of “This Is Your Life” in reverse. First came her husband, Jay-Z, on “Déjà Vu” — with him, she was affectionate while easily outshining him. Then, a true surprise: a reunion with her former Destiny’s Child groupmates Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, during which she happily ceded the main spotlight. After that came a playful dance routine with her sister, Solange, on “Get Me Bodied.” (Sadly, there was no “Ring Off” with her mother, nor a rendition of “Daddy Lessons” with her father.)