Review: Kanye West rides high at dynamic Joe Louis show

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Kanye West rode an Ultralight Beam into Joe Louis Arena on Wednesday for the first of two area stops on his “Saint Pablo” tour, thrilling his audience — especially the general admission floor crowd — with an exhilarating, visionary set design that found him hovering on a stage over the top of his fans.

Kanye West performs his Saint Pablo tour on a floating stage Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena.

Kanye has always had a God complex, it’s part of what makes him such a thrilling -- and divisive -- artist. But on his current tour, he’s positioned himself literally above his fans, looking down on them and preaching to them as if they're his disciples.

He’s done so by devising a small stage that hangs from a rig above and slowly moves over the audience's heads. Back and forth over the crowd, sometimes tilting downward, with a safety harness that attaches to his back to keep him from falling over the edge. It’s a simple enough concept, and many artists have utilized similar set-ups to travel out over the crowd for a song or two during their concerts.

Where Kanye upped the ante — and took concert staging in general to the proverbial next level — is by making that the whole show. There is no end stage, no band set up, just him performing on a floating stage for the duration of the 100-minute concert. It’s a triumph of minimalist production and staging as anti-staging.

He’s not so much performing for the audience as he’s performing at them. And given that he’s got the best view in the house, there were several moments Wednesday where Kanye seemed to pause, look around and take it all in.

However you feel about Kanye West, it’s impossible to deny his magnetism as a performer; it’s always been one of his strongest assets. Yet there were several times Wednesday when he just kind of stood there, slowly stalking around his stage, in an almost sedated manner. He’s usually much more physical, lunging into every word and syllable, and there were times where he turned it on, like when he heaved his arms forward like a pitcher gunning a fastball over home plate during “Black Skinhead.” Other times, he was as stiff as a statue; during “Heartless,” he stood at the edge of his stage, bathed in deep red light from above, and simply peered down at the audience below.

But oh man, that stage. Surrounded by flood lights, it was like the spaceship from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and it lit the crowd below in such a beautiful way that the entire show was a breathtaking visual bonanza. The lighting rigs above him morphed and shifted into diagonal positions, always changing and evolving over the course of the show. And near the end of the night, during "Fade," a wall of red lasers beamed across the arena, while Kanye performed in front of them. (If you can't pop off a good Instagram shot at this show, it's time to forfeit your account.)

On Kanye’s last tour, the 2013 Yeezus outing, he created a sort of conceptual art piece, complete with a mountain top and a cameo from Jesus, that was so purposely inaccessible (he wore a diamond-covered mask for much of the show) that it alienated many casual fans. The “Saint Pablo” tour is much more inviting and simple to embrace: 30-plus songs that create a non-stop party vibe with an audience going crazy in a fluid, free-form moving mass below.

And because the stage is always moving, so is the audience, so everyone gets a shot to be up close or underneath the stage. It's a total democratization of general admission, a system that usually rewards those who get there early enough to press themselves up against the barricade. With Kanye, there is no barricade.

Kanye West performance on his Saint Pablo tour features a floating stage at Joe Louis Arena.

The floor was essentially a huge mosh pit, but that term has connotations of a more aggressive vibe than the one on display. This was more like a dance party with a lot of jumping and body-bumping; it was like the student section of a college football game after a touchdown for the majority of the concert.

Kanye served up a liberal helping of his latest album, "The Life of Pablo," mixed with hits and snippets of cameos from throughout his decade-plus career. The biggest ovations were reserved for "Waves," from "Pablo," "Touch the Sky" and "All of the Lights," which all came late in the program.

West -- who returns to Metro Detroit Oct. 6 with a show at the Palace of Auburn Hills -- freely cut off several songs, including "Famous," "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Freestyle 4," ordering his DJ to start them over. This wasn't a hindrance, it ramped up the excitement level of each song.

Among those in the audience rooting him on was Detroit rapper Big Sean, a member of West's G.O.O.D. Music team, along with members of his family. Sean received a special shout-out from Kanye inside a mid-show speech where he talked about the importance of his Yeezy brand and how it will one day change the world. How? "I don't have to tell you about how," he teased.

Whether or not Yeezy changes the world, Kanye West continues to innovate in the concert space. And on that Ultralight Beam, "Saint Pablo" is his boldest, most effective statement to date.

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