INDIO, CA. – Before she put in one of the most consequential live performances of the year (and — I feel pretty safe making this claim — of the 21st century), Beyoncé posted a brief message to her Facebook page:
I am so excited to see the BeyHive tonight at Coachella. We have been working hard and have a special show planned for you so please be safe and stay hydrated. We need your energy! There will be an hour intermission before my performance, so mark your spot, charge your phones, grab your drinks. Can’t wait to see y’all at 11:05pm!
In hindsight, this wasn’t a mild tease, it was a warning shot. By the time the 36-year-old artist finished her expansive, near-two-hour headlining set Saturday night — one that featured a full marching band and drumline, a Destiny’s Child reunion, cameos by husband Jay-Z (on “Déjà Vu”) and sister Solange (dancing along to “Get Me Bodied”), a tribute to Fela Kuti and Nina Simone, and Beyoncé herself floating high above the crowd on top of a lift while singing “Drunk in Love” — it felt like the music space-time continuum had permanently ripped.
All of it dates back to early 2017, when Bey had to cancel her Coachella headlining slot due to her pregnancy, and promised she’d be back the following year. She then spent the next few months dreaming up something a bit more audacious. The result was Beychella, a HBCU-themed musical gathering that featured updated versions of classic hits — from the slow, methodical tease of “Formation” to the chopped-and-screwed coda of “Crazy in Love” to the full spin-off of “Sorry” to the DC-backed “Soldier” and “Say My Name” — performed by Bey and a sea of musicians wearing bright yellow bejeweled hoodies. There was also a giant catwalk down the middle of the field which, to be clear, is an unusual site at a major music festival; most artists are not allowed to build custom metal structures at an event like Coachella (related: Beyoncé is not most artists).
Watching the show — both in person and via the Coachella live stream — was an exercise in multi-tasking. There were so many different things happening at once it was hard to know where to look. There were dancers krumping, tuba players bouncing up and down, violinists swaying back and forth, and Beyoncé singing and twerking and curling her way around the stage, using every inch of space she could. And it somehow still sounded good, despite being held in a setting where good sound is notoriously difficult to pin down. The horn section had depth, the snares popped, the strings hovered but weren’t overpowering, and, most importantly, Beyoncé’s voice was sharp, strong, and crystal clear.
This wasn’t a festival gig as much as a Broadway-scale production with a 70-plus-person backing band — one that displayed the pop domination of Bey while exploring the full breadth of the Black diaspora. During the set, Bey sang a cover of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” included snippets of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” speech, and featured brief horn-heavy cuts of C-Murder’s “Down For My N’s” and Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” Beyoncé was playing singer, soror, band director, antagonizer, dancer, and slayer of men all at once. This was a pop star 20 years into her career, at the top of her game, producing the type of concert-meets-history lesson-meets-social media explosion viewers will be talking about for years to come.
More surreal than the show itself, though, was watching people watch it in real time. Standing near me was the guy in the pink hot pants and sky-blue mesh tank screaming at the top of his lungs; the girl in long braids and black Stussy hoodie staring, mouth agape; the young girl in a shimmering jacket dancing with her mother; the thousands of bodies gyrating, two-stepping, clapping, and hollering in unison. Despite two straight days of 90-degree heat, standing in lines, eating poorly, and breathing in desert dust, they gave Queen Bey their all.
And Beyoncé returned the favor, running and singing and dancing for two hours straight with minimal breaks. Bey’s stamina knows no bounds. “Thank you for allowing me to be the first Black woman to headline Coachella,” she said at the end of the evening, to deafening applause. “I just want to say thank you, guys. I am so happy you are here… We worked real hard and I loved seeing all of your faces.”
“God, thank you,” one fan shouted back at her. It was probably not hyperbole.
UPDATE: A previous version of this story misstated the title of C-Murder’s song. The post has been updated with the correct title