Of all the one-name-required pop divas who launched big arena tours within the last three years, the most unknowable star is Beyoncé. There are fountains of tabloid tales about Madonna, Britney, Mariah and Christina, but the onetime Destiny's Child singer has mysteriously but impeccably carved out her own niche as a triple threat while hiding in broad spotlight. Perhaps that's why she so strenuously emphasized the many dimensions of her identity at Madison Square Garden Sunday night, kicking off the U.S. leg of her "I Am ..." tour in New York. The title could have been followed by a dozen sometimes conflicting terms — dancer, balladeer, street, classy, movie star, rock star, feminist, sex symbol, humble, proud, demure Beyoncé, fearless Sasha Fierce. Ultimately, though, she wanted to be consumed. "I am," she said as the final notes rang out, "I am ... yours."
Two hours earlier Beyoncé emerged alone in a gust of smoke. Giant black curtains parted and a single beam of light illuminated her silhouette, as though the heavens had opened and simply deposited her leggy figure there. Opener "Crazy in Love" had enough pomp and glitter to have been the encore, and as Jay-Z calmly strode onstage to join his wife for his verse, the Garden lit up with camera phones and genuine hysteria. Beyoncé pulled out the stops early and often, swinging her hair around wildly, falling to her knees and dancing hard enough for every move to be seen by fans in the $20 seats. She worked, and worked it relentlessly, never missing a note, a beat of choreography, or a chance to strike a pose, hold it, and be adored.
She bent backwards at her guitarist's feet during "Freakum Dress" and stood windblown atop the set's biggest piece — a giant lighted staircase — for "Smash Into You" from her recent movie Obsessed. Her white dress was transformed into a stunning wedding gown during "Ave Maria," which took a detour into Sarah McLachlan's "Angel." "If I Were a Boy" lifted a verse from Alanis Morissette's biting "You Oughta Know" and heralded the arrival of her more ferocious onstage persona (in case the rocked out tune and red lighting wasn't a tip-off, a video interlude tracked a robot Beyonce's interactions with a cheetah as a mechanical voice intoned "Sasha Fierce").
Thierry Mugler's wardrobe designs put Beyoncé in a variety of gold sparkly leotards, all form-fitting, light-reflecting and leg-baring. She later donned a gown for a torchy two-song display of vocal gymnastics on "At Last" and "Listen," which could have been dubbed her coulda-shoulda Oscar interlude.
But before she was refined, she was straight-up fierce: the fantastic "Radio" juxtaposed images of a five-year-old Beyoncé with the current-day version, which led to a brief speech that introduced "Me, Myself and I." "I'm all about female empowerment," Beyoncé simply stated. "We have to support each other, which is why all the musicians onstage are ladies. Give it up for my all-female band!" It wasn't The Feminine Mystique, but it was more convincing than the girl-power show Gwen Stefani brought to the Garden a few years ago with her Harajuku Girls.
After another wardrobe-change break, Beyoncé shot into the air, suspended by wires, and glided over the crowd to a smaller stage while completing some acrobatic flips to "Baby Boy." Before a Destiny's Child medley, she paused to speak to specific fans: "I see you in the yellow shirt," she said, pointing out an audience member, "and I see you with the fringe dress." She then sang a stripped-down "Irreplaceable," putting aside the mic as the crowd handled the first verse and chorus without her.
Seeing her fans — and making them feel acknowledged (particularly those who paid a pretty penny for front-row VIP packages) — was a major priority that reached its apex with an amusing montage of fan-made "Single Ladies" videos, which featured appearances by Web sensation Shane Mercado, Barack Obama and Justin Timberlake. After Beyoncé and her crew of dancers re-emerged to show everyone how it's really done, she ended with ballad "Halo," singing as she descended from the stage and shook hands with nearly every fan in the front rows. She thanked the crowd for a "wonderful first night in America," then asked if anyone in the house was celebrating a birthday, serenading the arena with "Happy Birthday." It was an odd way to break the momentum of the carefully plotted show, but it was a genuine moment, and her final gift of the night.
"Crazy in Love" (featuring Jay-Z)
"Get Me Bodied"
"Smash Into You"
"Ave Maria"/"Angel" (Sarah McLachlan)
"If I Were A Boy"/"You Oughta Know" (Alanis Morissette)
"Me, Myself & I"
"Check On It"
Destiny's Child Medley ("Bootylicious," "Bug-A-Boo," "Jumpin' Jumpin' ")
"Video Phone" (dance to track)
"Say My Name"
"Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)"