Beyoncé and Jay-Z's "On the Run II" tour stopped at New Era Field on Saturday and a full house was welcomed into the House of Carter, where immense fame, limitless cash, bountiful street cred, beautiful children and seemingly endless critical acclaim share space with profound hurt, guilt, remorse and blame.
So it was just another enormous production detailing a marriage exactly like yours and mine — minus the fame, cash, street cred and critical acclaim, of course.
There's never been anything else like it, really. And don't throw Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's joint tours at me as some sort of protest. Those two put on a show that suggests they've never shared a cross word in the history of their marriage. This was most certainly not that.
"This is real love," goes the catch-phrase heralding the "On the Run II" tour, and how much you're willing to invest in the truth of that statement is a personal choice. Are these two just the ultimate power couple, willing to bury the fissures in their relationship to protect the dominance of the brand? Or have they dealt with the reported infidelity and the cracks in the matrimonial façade, and now fully emerged on the other side of the dark valley, with their love intact?
How in the world am I supposed to know the answer to that question? I can only say with complete confidence that all this drama made for great theater at New Era Field.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z emerged atop a massive tower, hand in hand, dressed in white, a vision of fidelity-bathed beauty. Things got a little tense from there, as the two shared the stage together for the majority of the set, sharing verses on each other's songs, only occasionally breaking off to perform solo renditions of their broad selection of massive hits. This helped to build the tension, and also proved to be the show's closest thing to an Achilles heel.
Beyoncé and Jay's tunes don't necessarily mesh together all that well. Jay's selections rocked hard, bringing brutal hip-hop verisimilitude and smackin' beats to the show. Beyoncé's music, in the main, is much more grandiose and melodramatic. Both were great. But it's fair to suggest that they were stylistic oil and water.
Regardless, the fans packing New Era Field showered love on both Carters, dancing, screaming along, and turning One Bills Drive into a massive house party. Immense props go to the live band responsible for backing both Jay and Bey, and not just because drummer Venzella Joy is a Buffalo native, and a veteran of Beyoncé's international tours who has done for drumming something similar to what Bey has done for strong, independent female pop stars.
The large ensemble was set up behind a scrim, arranged vertically in a Hollywood Squares-like arrangement. They added fire and a visceral wallop to the entire evening, one that could be felt to the very back of the stadium.
But this night was all about Mr. and Mrs. Carter, and if at times it seemed that Jay was responsible for keeping the crowd engaged during his wife's many costume changes, well, the majority of the most butt-kicking portions of the show belonged to Jay.
The back-and-forth arrangement seemed to suit the crowd and things heated up as they proceeded, with Beyonceé's "Drunk in Love" and "Diva" butting heads with Jay-Z's "Clique" and "On To the Next One," the sparring between principals matched by increasingly intense choreography and a brilliant visual element. Twin video screens and catwalks stretching halfway out across the field lent a relative intimacy to the performance, and the sound, with satellite speaker clusters spread throughout, was strikingly crisp, clean and powerful.
It was during the second half that the relationship crisis at the show's heart was fully revealed. Striking between-song films less-than-subtly displayed the couple arguing, holding their children separately, and watching on from a barren field as their family home burned to the ground. Meanwhile, Beyoncé delivered a torrid "Resentment" at the end of her catwalk, moments after Jay had emerged in a Kevlar vest to boast of having "99 Problems," with relationship blues not making the list. The romantic slap-fest continued with "Family Feud" and "Upgrade U," and the crowd ate it up.
Of course, catharsis was coming, as the couple reconciled, all was seemingly forgiven, and the dramatic arc — the thesis/antithesis/synthesis sweep — touched down on the far shore.
Was it a cathartic bit of drama? Mildly creepy voyeurism? An audience dealing with its own problems by proxy? A bombastic, brilliantly elaborate ruse? All of the above?
Who knows? But with a setlist weighing in at 42 songs, digging deeply and thoroughly into two prolific catalogs, and a visual presentation that was beyond state-of-the-art, "On the Run II" offered a frank, sometimes freaky and always funky feast for the senses.
"OTRII": Beyonce and Jay-Z, Aug. 18 at New Era Field.