Beyonce has been writing female anthems since she was a teenager in Destiny’s Child, and now that she’s a “Grown Woman,” as one of her latest songs declares, and a mother, the perspective has only deepened. The singer has piled up 17 Grammy Awards and 75 million worldwide album sales, and is mega enough on the celebrity scale to warrant a headlining appearance at the Super Bowl halftime, where she unofficially kicked off the current tour in February. Even without a new album to hawk – her most recent release, “4,” came out in 2011 – she still packed the arena.
The singer delivered a show that demonstrated she’s been keeping tabs on her pop peers. She didn’t so much surpass any of them as incorporate elements of each into her own choreographed spectacle – the blitz of costume changes by Katy Perry, the art-pop theatricality of Madonna and Lady Gaga, the Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics of Pink.
On Beyonce’s first solo tour a decade ago, she appeared on stage tossing rose petals and channeling Cleopatra. On this tour, she’s moved the time period up a few centuries to evoke Marie Antoinette and gilded French decadence. Video interludes maintained the theme as Beyonce disappeared every two or three songs for a series of costume makeovers, from a flowing “Freakum” gown to leather bondage gear.
Her eternal fabulousness was enhanced by fans that kept her abundant hair blowing in the breeze and her face remarkably free of perspiration, even as she danced furiously in high heels. Despite the calisthenics, most of the singing appeared to be live rather than canned.
Backed by an 11-piece all-female band and a bevy of dancers on a two-tiered stage, Beyonce delivered hit after hit, from “Run the World (Girls)” to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” with the precision of a performer who has been in show biz most of her life. With not a minute to lose, she even zip-lined from the main stage to a smaller platform in the middle of the arena to perform three songs. It was the most relaxed moment of the set, with Beyonce bantering with the audience as she worked through “Irreplaceable,” “Love on Top” and the Destiny’s Child manifesto “Survivor.”
With her easy smile and warm demeanor, Beyonce should have broken free from the script more often. As it was, just about everything felt a little robotic, if totally professional. Her voice is solid and flexible, but a bit thin around the edges, lacking the robustness that defines the greatest soul singers. In the quieter moments, a self-deprecating humility crept into “Flaws and All,” but an ambitious mix of “If I Were a Boy” with the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” came off flat. And though she gamely took on Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” she didn’t quite have the chops to match Whitney Houston’s titanic version.
Instead of vocal might and depth of feeling, Beyonce offered sturdiness. For all her glamour, she projected accessibility, determination, a take-nothing-for-granted attitude. “They listen to me when I talk, ‘cause I ain’t pretending,” she sang amid a confetti shower, fighting words for her and her thousands of female co-conspirators.
Beyonce set list Wednesday at United Center:
1 Run the World (Girls)
2 End of Time
3 Flaws and All
4 If I Were a Boy
5 Get Me Bodied
6 Baby Boy
8 Naughty Girl
10 Freakum Dress
11 I Care
12 I Miss You
13 Schoolin' Life
14 Why Don't You Love Me
17 Love on Top
18 Survivor (Destiny’s Child)
19 Crazy in Love
20 Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)
21 Grown Woman
22 I Will Always Love You (Dolly Parton)23 Halo