by Keith Spera, Music writer, The Times-Picayune
Late in Beyonce's closing set Friday at the Essence Music Festival, a montage of YouTube clips showed ordinary people mimicking her "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" black *** video.
Beyonce herself soon appeared and demonstrated that, compared to mere mortals - and most of her pop world peers -- she inhabits an entirely different plane of existence. God bless Britney Spears, but she cannot hold a candle to Beyonce Knowles.
Inside a sold-out Superdome -- reportedly the largest single-*** attendance in Essence history -- Beyonce lived up to the legend of her stellar 2007 Essence performance.
Keith I. Marszalek / NOLA.comOn an enormous video screen backdrop -- surely it set a new standard for clarity relative to size -- the 10-foot-tall Beyonce appeared three-dimensional.
Maybe it was the screen. Or maybe it was the charisma.
Her dancing was crisp, clean and perfectly choreographed, even if there was less of it than in '07. She sang -- actually sang. When she broke character, she came across as personable and genuine. And she orchestrated a simple, classy and devastating tribute to Michael Jackson.
The logistics of coordinating multiple acts on one Essence stage meant that Beyonce could not deploy the full production from her current "I Am...Tour." She did not, for instance, "fly" to a remote secondary stage. And her hour-and-a-half Essence set was a truncated version of her usual show; cuts included a Destiny's Child medley.
Her solo catalog was ample enough. And even without her full complement of bells and whistles, Beyonce fronted a jaw-dropping spectacle, the sort of spectacle for which superlatives are reserved.
She presented herself with "Crazy in Love." As in 2007, an entirely female band backed her; males were relegated to her dance troupe. The musicians -- including three percussionists, three horns, and three backing vocalists dubbed "the Mamas" -- navigated the taut arrangements of "Naughty Girl," "Freakum Dress" and "Get Me Bodied."
Against scenes of crashing waves and sunbeams, she stood atop a Plexiglass staircase in a long white robe and sang "Smash Into You." She wrapped herself in Sarah McLachlan's lovely "Angel." In the evening's vocal highlight, she absolutely tore up "Ave Maria" with clarion sustained notes and passion to burn.
Keith I. Marszalek / NOLA.comIn the guise of alter-ego Sasha Fierce, she wore an armored leather bustier and mirrored aviator shades, grabbed her crotch on "If I Were a Boy" and wailed Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" -- but refrained from finishing the explicit "do you think of me when you ..." lyric on the microphone.
Via video, she morphed from robot to leopard; the flesh-and-blood Beyonce subsequently presided over the sparse club beat of "Diva" ("the female version of a hustla"). Vintage video of a precocious grade-school Beyonce butted up against the future-shock "Radio," as gold robot mimes attended two suitcase-sized boomboxes.
"Irreplaceable" opened as an acoustic sing-a-long. Bassist Debbie "Divinity" Walker followed with a five-string bass solo that touched on Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and "Billie Jean."
Beyonce returned in an evening gown to sing Etta James' "At Last" as scenes from the Civil Rights Movement segued to President Barack Obama's inauguration. She turned over much of "Listen," from the "Dreamgirls" soundtrack, to the audience. Few seemed to know the lyrics; if the show contained a weak moment, "Listen" was it.
For the final "Halo," the woman of the evening ventured into the photographers' pit in front of the stage. Without missing a note, she pressed the flesh along the barricades in what seemed like a farewell gesture.
As she arrived back on stage, the big screen once again showed her as a 5-year-old. This time, baby Beyonce excitedly announced she was headed to a Michael Jackson concert.
"That *** I saw my hero perform," the all-grown-up Beyonce recalled. "When I saw Michael Jackson hit the stage, that's when I decided who I wanted to be. There will only be one Michael Jackson. Long live the king."
A single image of Jackson in his prime - fedora pulled low, grimacing, in mid-step - filled the screen. And Beyonce addressed the remainder of "Halo" to him: "Michael, I can see your halo...I can feel your halo/Pray it won't fade away."
She ended the stunning tribute on her knees. In the audience, tears flowed.
There is little danger that Jackson will recede from memory. Neither will