Beyonce's Formation Tour Turned Levi's Stadium Into Sacred Ground

May 16, 2016
Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara

May 16 has long been an important date for music.

In 1966, it marked the release of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s masterpiece that rewrote the pop landscape. The same day, Bob Dylan dropped Blonde on Blonde on the world, a rock record of stunning lyrical prowess. Fifty years later, May 16 has a new addition to its legacy: it's the night Beyonce Knowles walked on water.

Late in her set at Levi’s Stadium, Queen Bey took to the center of a horseshoe catwalk that extended from the stage. Flanked by her indomitable posse of female dancers, she waited as the floor gave way to reveal a shallow pool of water. It was in this water that Beyonce performed a fiery rendition of “Freedom,” one of the many standout tracks from her latest release, Lemonade.

[jump] Plumes of liquid arced out with each stomp of choreography, an otherworldly visual in an evening filled with fiery pyrotechnics and a massive LED cube that would surely make Daft Punk jealous. As “Freedom” gave way to “Survivor,” the Destiny’s Child anthem of independence and perseverance, it was clear that the 45,000 fans that came from all corners of the Bay Area (and beyond) were witnessing the reinvention of one of music’s most potent voices.

This stop on the Formation tour was at least slightly special, given Levi’s Stadium was the spot that the single in question was first debuted to the public during Coldplay’s guest-heavy Super Bowl 50 halftime performance earlier this year. In the months since, Beyonce has upped the game that Radiohead started when they snuck In Rainbows out to the world in 2009, dropping the surprise HBO special “Lemonade” and its accompanying album last month.

The record is notable in part for its conceptual nature, charting a story of infidelity and rage through a series of songs that fall everywhere in sound from hip-hop to country to trap. Guests on the album include Jack White, The Weeknd, James Blake, and Kendrick Lamar, and while their studio contributions give Lemonade some of its incredible breadth and intensity, live there was room for no one but Beyonce to shine. Another absence of note was Jay-Z, whose verses on songs like “Drunk in Love” went unmissed in the beautiful mayhem of Monday night’s spectacle.

One artist that did get some face time during the set was the dearly departed Prince. In a truly poignant moment of remembrance, Beyonce belted a cover of  “The Beautiful Ones” from her knees. She showed she has one of the few voices capable of giving the song’s formidable climax the heft it requires.

For the rest of the evening, it was rightfully from her own catalogue that the setlist was drawn. Other Lemonade tracks like “Sorry” and “Daddy Lessons” hit the mark, and countless hits from Beyonce’s past records punctuated the new material.

In a stage set-up featuring upturned cargo boxes that used a lighting effect to bring the dancers standing within in and out of the shadows, she rose on a platform in a captivating red, ruffled latex outfit to perform the slow burn 2014 remix of “Crazy in Love” that featured prominently in adverts for the film Fifty Shades of Grey.

Midway through, the original beat intervened as blasts of fire erupted from the top of the stage. Marching down the catwalk with her entourage in tow, it was a moment that aptly summed up Beyonce’s thesis statement for the evening: that’s who they ask me to be, but here’s who I am.

Many have chosen to speculate about what Lemonade may truly be about, eager to draw insights into Beyonce and Jay-Z’s marriage, but to relegate such a revolutionary record to tabloid gossip is to miss the point entirely. Lemonade may be autobiographical, but only as a way to channel the universal. It's not an album about Beyonce; it’s about finding the power within yourself not to take the world’s shit, to instead throw it back and be all the stronger for it.

At one point in the evening, a throne raised up from beneath the floor. Beyonce took her rightful seat, a dancer on each side looking just as fierce as any of the many burly security guards that patrolled the field throughout the show. One could choose to see the image as a Queen gazing out on her subjects, but in truth, it was probably just a chance for the lifeblood of music’s present to take a much needed breather.

After all, walking on water is surely exhausting.

Critic's Notebook:

–  For the only time in my experience with ride-share, the surge pricing went to 400% on both Lyft and Uber following the end of the concert. Tired fans littered the sidewalks of Great America Parkway longingly looking at their phones. Simply put, Beyonce broke Lyft.

– Opener DJ Khaled embraced the Bay Area spirit by bringing both Too Short and E-40 to the stage during his set. Whistles were blown. 


Kitty Kat
Bow Down
Run the World (Girls)
Baby Boy
Hold Up
Me, Myself and I
Runnin' (Lose It All)
All Night
Don't Hurt Yourself
Ring the Alarm
Feeling Myself
Drunk in Love
1 + 1
Love on Top
The Beautiful Ones 
Crazy in Love
Naughty Girl
End of Time

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories