Beyonce at her best at the United Center when she dials back

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

BY MARK GUARINO Music Writer | Chicago Sun-Times

July 18, 2013 3:40AM

Contrary to what the ticket read, Beyonce did not just appear onstage at Wednesday the United Center, she was everywhere else on the premises: Largely in the fashion of the mainly female audience, decked out in sequined bras, hip-hugging formalwear and monster heels tailored after the pop music celebrity.

Or make that brand. Beyonce Knowles is a potent force of marketing nature, evidenced not just in the look of her audience, but also in the commercials that aired on the video screen in the hour before she took the stage. There, concertgoers, including first lady Michelle Obama, witnessed Beyonce the down-market pitchwoman (a bikini line for H&M), Beyonce the seductive perfumer (her eponymous-named fragrance) and Beyonce the Good Samaritan (a spot for Goodwill).

Spinning all those faces, and many others, became the dominant theme of the Chicago stop of the “Mrs. Carter Show,” her first world tour since the release of her 2011 album, which she followed up by having her first child with husband Jay-Z.

The mogul husband, the baby, the glamor, the girl power, those otherworldly thighs — all are ingredients that resulted in her informal stature as America’s sweetheart. That status green-lit her appearance as the half-time headliner of this year’s Super Bowl. When it was discovered earlier that she lip-synced her performance at President Obama’s inauguration in January, the public outrage felt genuine, almost like a disillusioned boyfriend who discovers his high school steady hasn’t been faithful.

Because she is balancing so many public images — sex symbol, faithful wife, empowering mother, demanding diva — it comes as no surprise that her two-hour, 22-song show often produced moments of dizziness. No less than eight video segments chopped the show into segments that presented Beyonce in different poses — in sparkly purple writhing atop a piano, in black leather and tall boots interacting with a guitarist, in schoolgirl white singing a ballad, in evening formalwear, dancing to Donna Summer. And more: Mix and match any color, style of fabric, and type of musical genre, and Beyonce produced.

While the kaleidoscope was intended, probably, to offer variety to an ADD-addled public, the outcome was just the opposite: The show’s heavy lifting showed, and all that finagling felt like a drag.

The likely reason is that Beyoncé the brand is more alluring than Beyonce the performer. Her magnetic smile, flowing, windswept hair and massive stage confidence make her immensely likable in everything she tries — from those finger wiggles all the way to sailing over the audience on a zip line. Watching her work an audience without having to do much — just tossing a towel she used to wipe her face whipped up her fans — was a reminder of how much, or maybe how little, true stardom requires. Did she lip-sync at times? Does she cut killer dance moves? Does it matter? That might be the only question that matters in this universe.

Save for two male dancers, Beyonce enlisted an eight-piece band and eight-member dance troupe, all women. Assisted by three female back-up singers, she focused largely on songs from her recent album, such as “Run the World (Girls)” and “End of Time” that were driven by aggressive hip-hop-inspired beats. That darker shade of experimentation is far from her sunnier anthems — those came later. And while it was a surprise to hear “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Brit rockers the Verve incorporated into “If I Were a Boy,” they didn’t sync.

Not trying as hard actually worked more to her favor. Many songs, like the aerobic workout “Get Me Bodied,” or the club thumper “Party,” did not require Beyonce to be as active. Instead, they allowed others in her crew to command the spotlight, or she and her dancers to hang onto the thrust of the song and ride it to the end.

She finally got to those empowerment hits (“Survivor,” “Crazy in Love”) once she sailed to the back end of the United Center and cat-walked around a smaller pit of general admission concertgoers, and exhorted the audience to dance.

Before ending the night with “Halo,” Beyoncé tried out a few bars of Whitney Houston’s signature “I Will Always Love You.” She thanked the late singer, but it wasn’t entirely clear if it was a tribute, or she was trying another crown on for size.

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