Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh
Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Beyoncé’s stop in Raleigh last night seemed doomed from the start.

Consider, for instance, that Beyoncé announced her current world tour and its only North Carolina date during the Super Bowl, the first of two national championships Carolina teams have lost this year. Soon thereafter, members of the Raleigh police union threatened to boycott the show in response to the condemnation of police brutality and negligence written into the music video for “Formation,” the song that lent its name to the entire run. And in the weeks since the passage of House Bill 2, and on the heels of boycotts by the likes of Demi Lovato, Pearl Jam, and The Boss, worries about The New Boss, as perhaps we should call her now, ran wild. (In these parts, Beyoncé and HB 2 fevers have been so high that I even tracked down (false) rumors her crew had begun to cancel hotel rooms at Durham’s 21c.)

But Beyoncé didn’t boycott. On Monday, the gargantuan Formation stage began to go into Carter-Finley Stadium, used as a music venue just twice during the last decade. At last, the time to be safe in shared excitement had arrived—at least until you checked the forecast, a dismal scatterplot of severe thunderstorms set to roll through the area during the first half of the week.

Yesterday, that rain exacerbated after-work, pre-show gridlock in Raleigh, causing some concertgoers to spend a reported four hours getting to the stadium. At last, after gates opened in the early evening, they were closed again, with early arrivals sent back to their cars to wait out the second hail-streaked storm in as many days. And that was but a premonition of the bedlam that ensued a little more than an hour into Beyoncé’s set, when a flash of lightning at 10:01 p.m. forced Live Nation to “suspend” the show and send shivering, soaked fans to the shelter of the PNC Arena or their cars until the electricity could pass. More than an hour later, Beyoncé began again, finishing around midnight.

Somehow, it was all worth the hubbub, the wait, the rain.

Beyoncé emerged just before 9 p.m. with a brilliant introduction in the form of a feint. Not long after the crowd started to chant her name, the enormous monitors flanking the sound stage and the sound system—my God, that sound system, perfect with the bass and the treble—sprang to life. At center stage, a massive television that looked like an obelisk and had glowed pure white, like an alien life force, before the show, began to pivot right, flashing images of Beyoncé, orchids, eagles, and Spanish moss to the sound of sculpted static and bass, a little like Evian Christ. The screen lit a squad of dancers, emerging from stage left like a militia of marionettes. The audience erupted.

But Beyoncé lurked across the stage, to their right, in a black corset, holding a golden microphone, her golden hair hidden beneath a broad-billed hat. She sang snatches of “Formation”; when the audience finally found her—the stray across the stage from a posse dressed just like her— people pointed and screamed as if they’d spotted a ghost or a god, appropriately shrouded in fog.

That supernatural quality animated much of the show. Beyoncé moved seamlessly between complex choreography that commandeered the whole wide stage and a suite of ballads and motivational speeches that made the place feel more like a very big living room. The comprehensiveness of her wardrobe changes—from black corset to white gown to red romper, with lightning bolt sewn across the waist—suggested a second and third skin, not a team of assistants lurking in the wings with new threads.

Sequenced snippets of “Cut It,” “U Mad,” and her own teased hits suggested not that she tapped the zeitgeist but instead created it whole-cloth. The great Lemonade has been out for a week; the audience sang its “Hold Up” and “All Night” like ancient scriptures, not new hits. After “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she sat on a Lucifer-like throne, the screens behind her glowing a garish red—she was the commander, and we were the ready congregation.

But Beyoncé took care to make it clear that she, too, was human. During the set’s first ten minutes, she bounded down the catwalk, backup dancers a precise step behind her. Where most acts of this size wait until late in the show to get that close to the crowd, she made it a priority to connect immediately. Time and again, she’d move down the runway, stopping to dance and smile and wink. At one point, she dipped an arm into an ecstatic throng of stage-side fans for handshakes and high fives. As she struggled to pull it back from their surprised grasps, she beamed. At another point, she sang while seated on the steps of the catwalk, sulking a bit, her dancers surrounding her like a squad of friends on the stoop. Empathy went from audience to artist and back again, an amazing feat for a show so huge, for a star so seemingly larger than life.

Beyoncé’s Formation set contains vicissitudes and multitudes, a range of emotion that captures a relationship, an album, a lifetime. While Beyoncé and team switched outfits backstage, one particularly powerful video showed her breaking through the screen—a glass house, too small to contain her—before pulling a razor blade from her mouth and down along her lips. It was dark, damaged, desperate. Moments later, however, she was coddling us with “Me, Myself and I,” telling us that the only validation we needed was internal. She seemed mad as hell, but happy to be here, eternally grateful but forever unsatisfied. Summoning pools of contemporary discontent but thrilled to be alive right now, the show—the singing and dancing, the videos and speeches, the smiles and nods—felt vital, an urgent piece of popular, unconventionally challenging art.

In 2009, when U2 played Carter-Finley Stadium, the show created logistical snafus so significant that the place didn’t host another concert until last year’s Rolling Stones set. Both are, of course, aging packs of white Europeans, relative dinosaurs in respective stages of obsolescence. In many ways, then, we needed Beyoncé last night, to prove that stadium tours are about more than trotting out the old hits, to demonstrate that shows can be permanent statements more than temporary spectacles. As she and her pals lifted their middle fingers during “Sorry,” or as she screamed at the chorus motherfuckers of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” with the rest of us, the feeling was one of righteous defiance and solidarity—against bad friends, against worse lovers, against nasty traffic, against nastier weather, against discriminatory laws, against wrongheaded police tempted to boycott free speech…

Last night in Raleigh, Beyoncé—and all of us, really—overcame that for a few occasionally interrupted hours. In the end, Beyoncé’s stop in Raleigh seemed plenty blessed.