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Beyonce, Missy, Alicia

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A Show That's All Woman

Crazy in Love With Beyonce, Missy, Alicia

By Sean Daly

Special to The Washington Post

Friday, April 9, 2004; Page C01

On a go-go-go night when three of the most dazzling women in music -- Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott -- flaunted their formidable skills at MCI Center, it was ultimately a dude who provided a jacked-up Wednesday crowd with the biggest reason to squeal.

The top rapper in all the land, and a supposedly retired one at that, Jay-Z bounded from the shadows to join his gal-pal Beyonce on the incendiary show-closer, "Crazy in Love," capping what will no doubt go down as the yowza concert of the year.

Any mortal man would have melted from the pressure of such intimidating company (or from the grindhouse-worthy amount of male and female backing-dancer flesh constantly sexing up the stage).

From infectious oddball Elliott's Jacques Cousteau-fever-dream set design to throwback Keys's funked-up piano wizardry to wonder-woman Beyonce's gyrating-gymnast-with-a-heart-of-gold finale, the Ladies First Tour was a four-hour display of spectacular show-womanship.

Despite their insistence on calisthenically working the stage in all manner of bumps, grinds and back-and-forth sprints, the stars never resorted to lip-syncing or allowing the highfalutin FX to take over their individual performances. (Are you listening, Britney?) And the buzzing, big-event crowd -- a marketer's dream of just about every music-loving demographic -- appreciated the genuine effort, from the frat boys to the droopy-drawers crew, from the decked-out, deep-cleavaged lookers to the wee ones in danger of disappearing forever into the precarious decolletage.

After the briefest of hello-goodbyes from humble pre-show appetizer Tamia -- that's Mrs. Grant Hill to you basketball fans -- in which she had just enough time (and a mere sliver of stage) to sweetly deliver a few song snippets, including Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," Elliott appeared with the trademark trippy flair that makes her videos such a bizarro treat.

Putting together a too-short 35-minute set that was all parts performance art, underwater adventure and strip-a-palooza, the pop-rap party-thrower jumped out of a center-stage Vegas-style magic box and was instantly surrounded by skull-headed mimes, barely dressed cheerleaders and a DJ in a futuristic Easter egg. "Misdemeanor" Elliott has never been subtle about anything, so naturally this all went down in front of a swirling video aquarium -- complete with a singing shark. Think "Grinding Nemo" and you'll be close.

Hip-hop shows -- usually fueled by recorded tracks -- often suffer from muffled acoustics and fuzzy bass lines. But if the sound was loud and thumping all night, it also remained blissfully clear. The 32-year-old Elliott thrilled with quick-lipped deliveries of the Timbaland-produced gems "Get Ur Freak On," "Work It" and the new "Pass That Dutch," during which her eight -- no, here come six more! -- 14 dancers tried out some country moves (yep, line-dancing). Elliott bid adieu with a Cal Ripkenesque victory lap of hugs and high-fives around the arena's lower level, a rarely attempted meet-and-greet that fans were still swooning over at evening's end. Now that's working a room.

If there was a negative about the Ladies First Tour -- which returns to MCI Center on Sunday -- it's that the performers are a bit too much in touch with their sexuality. Beyonce's Olympic-caliber, coconut-cracking thighs should come with their own parental-advisory label, but it was a pole-sliding acrobat in Elliott's X-travaganza that had some worried moms pulling their kids just a bit closer.

"I was like, 'Omigod!' " said D.C.'s Jodi Liverpool, who brought her slightly dazed 6-year-old daughter Noel -- who, in a reporter's presence, could shyly peep just one word: "Beyonce" -- to her very first concert. "It was good. But I guess they feel that they have to throw in the sex stuff and be all aggressive."

"That's kind of what I like the most," whispered 35-year-old District man Honesty (just Honesty), sitting nearby and looking dazed for very different reasons. "Yeah, they showed a reeeeeal enthusiasm."

It wasn't so saucy throughout. The long-braided, bustiered Keys relied on a more old-school approach during her 75-minute set. Then again, just because her comparatively spare stage design didn't come equipped with George Lucas-level foofaraw doesn't mean every portion of her performance wasn't meant to get jaws dropping. A classically trained prodigy who infuses jazzy ballads with soulful oomph, the prodigious 23-year-old held heavenly high notes on the swoony "Fallin' " and the Prince-penned "How Come You Don't Call Me," busted out a baton and conducted her nine-piece band for a funky jam session, and, in a gulp-inducing bit of "Fabulous Baker Boys" whimsy, writhed across her baby grand -- and then played the darn thing upside down. She even threw in an all-together-now cover of the Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye" for good measure.

Pop stars planning summer concerts could learn a few things from the Ladies First Tour. The entire night was carefully and cleverly put together, from the diverse-enough acts expertly fusing together various components of the hip-hop universe to the relatively fast set changes that -- considering that the stage got deeper and more tech-complex as the night wore on -- could have killed the momentum had the crew doddered.

Although Elliott and Keys could easily helm their own solo arena shows -- and here's hoping they do -- there was really only one logical choice to wrap up this night.

Beyonce (nee Beyonce Knowles) loves her pyrotechnics. And her 20-foot-high, satin-covered swings. And her palanquin/hospital bed that, hefted up by some buffed helpers, carried her through the crowd to the stage like the pop queen she's quickly, and rightfully, becoming.

But what the 23-year-old loves more than anything is to bend, twist and Shakira-shake her epically proportioned physique, which -- after 85 minutes, six varying degrees of undress and a full-throated barrage of top-of-the-chart hits -- can now be considered the finest collection of body parts of all time. She's like Tina Turner with a bigger budget and -- hold your fire -- a better voice.

Flipping her long, streaked-blond brown mane and backed by six -- no, wait, here come nine more! -- 15 dancers, Beyonce, in gold lamé skirt (well, skirtlike) and bra, opened with "Baby Boy." She smoothly segued into the ecstatic moans of the "Love to Love You Baby"-sampled "Naughty Girl." Working with both a showoff DJ and a full band on two coolly gliding bandstands, she and her undulating abs strutted and shimmied out hits from her day-job group Destiny's Child ("Independent Women," "Say My Name," "Survivor") and then climbed a nifty staircase/slide straight out of Harry Potter for a dreamy singalong of solo hit "Dangerously in Love 2."

For the final wardrobe change of the night, "B" let it all hang out in a Daisy Duke-meets-Dorothy getup: a tight white baby-T, 10-sizes-too-small denim shorts and ruby-red pumps. "Crazy in Love" just might be the most overplayed song of the last 10 years, but it sounded positively bombastic Wednesday night. Of course, once Jay-Z -- looking remarkably fit in his retirement -- entered stage left for his mid-song rhyme, you couldn't hear much at all. As plumes of white confetti continued to fall well after the house lights popped on, a majority of the crowd continued to cheer -- ready, apparently, for another four hours.

Madonna, who comes to MCI Center on June 13 and 14, certainly has her work cut out for her. The Material Girl's top-level tickets are $303, while Beyonce & Co.'s best views can be had for $77.50. On this night, there was no question which was the more worthy expenditure. "Three hundred?" said Victoria Lender, a breathless 27-year-old Keys fan. "I can watch that on VH1."

The Washington Post

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Madonna, who comes to MCI Center on June 13 and 14, certainly has her work cut out for her. The Material Girl's top-level tickets are $303, while Beyonce & Co.'s best views can be had for $77.50. On this night, there was no question which was the more worthy expenditure. "Three hundred?" said Victoria Lender, a breathless 27-year-old Keys fan. "I can watch that on VH1."

I think she meant to say, who would watch that shit for free. :lol:

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