Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Tampa Bay Music & Shows

Beyoncé preps for her Formation Tour with rehearsals in Tampa

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TAMPA — From the street outside Raymond James Stadium, you can see the glow.

It's red, it's blue, it's violet, it's white. Spotlights wash across 65,000 empty seats. You can hear muffled voices, a few familiar melodies, a live band — or is it a drumline? — cracking out a rhythm. On an enormous, rotating tower of LED screens, you can see words flash in stark black and white: FEMALE. HUSTLER. DIVA. BOSS.

And then, if you catch the angle just right, you can make her out on the screen, surrounded by dancers: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, one of the biggest stars in music.

Everything Beyoncé does is shrouded in secrecy, from her HBO special dubbed Lemonade on Saturday to her forthcoming Formation World Tour, which kicks off next week in Miami before hitting Tampa on April 29.

This month, no city has had a better view of Beyoncé than Tampa. Formation Tour rehearsals have taken place behind the walls of Raymond James Stadium, as an army of crews and dancers build and polish what will be one of the world's most anticipated tours of 2016. By the time rehearsals end, she'll have spent about a month here, the subject of much gossip and speculation, but very little else.

For this brief window of time, Beyoncé isn't just the music world's biggest mystery. She is Tampa's mystery, too.

• • •

Why did Beyoncé pick Tampa for rehearsals? The short answer: Logistics.

Florida is a frequent beginning or end point for major tours, and those that start here often rehearse here, too. For theatrical shows, rehearsals can take a few days. For large-scale events like the Formation Tour, construction and choreography can take weeks.

"Putting all the pieces together is difficult," Beyoncé said in her 2010 tour documentary I Am … World Tour. "Every lighting cue, every spot, all of the staging, all of the segues and the tracks, all of these things take a lot of work. And I have a lot of help from a lot of people, but ultimately, I'm the crazy psycho that knows every cue. And I'm very serious about my production."

The payoff: Beyoncé's last solo tour, in 2013 and 2014, grossed more than $200 million from a worldwide audience of nearly 2 million.

The Formation Tour's first stop, Miami's Marlin's Park, was a bad fit for rehearsals; you can't rent a baseball stadium for the season's opening month. So promoters Live Nation paid the Tampa Sports Authority about $745,000, plus a $10,000 damage deposit, to rent RayJay from April 5 through the concert, with a few moving days on both ends.

For the TSA, the chance to curry favor with a powerful promoter seemed like a good opportunity.

"Orlando and Tampa are competing heavily now for shows, with the changes at the Citrus Bowl," executive director Eric Hart told TSA board members in March. "We're trying to create as much of an environment for business as we can without pushing the limit too far."

Everyone tried to keep tour details hush-hush. Stadium security was airtight. Few have seen the stage, and even fewer have spoken about it. TSA board member Thomas Scott got a peek this week, and suggested it was much larger than the stage Taylor Swift brought to RayJay last fall.

"That's one of the largest stages they ever put up," he said. "I don't think I've seen a stage that size."

For a while, the only hints of the tour's presence in Tampa were a few Instagrammed photos of the tour hotel and pool, posted by dancers and crew. Then, this week, a handful of uncredited, partially obstructed photos of a stage under construction began to circulate on Twitter. Not every fan wanted to share them.

"Beyoncé does not want any pictures of her tour stage in Tampa posted on the internet," tweeted the fan news outlet @TheBeyHiveTeam. "She's really pissed about it. We're respecting!"

Geographically, Beyoncé herself was a ghost on social media, even during this month's launch of her fashion line Ivy Park and in the buildup to the Lemonade special. Her accounts posted only one brief personal message all month — a six-word Facebook statement on Thursday after the death of her friend and longtime supporter Prince.

There was, on April 13, one brief bombshell of visibility: Beyoncé's husband Jay Z visited One Buc Place for a workout. The team posted photos and a short video of the rapper hobnobbing with quarterback Jameis Winston, and noted, almost as an aside, that Beyoncé was in town, too.

• • •

While Beyoncé herself has barely surfaced in public, a few members of her inner circle have made the rounds.

On the morning of April 11, Ivy McGregor, the singer's director of philanthropy and corporate relations, and her publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure (who also was Prince's publicist), visited a pair of Tampa magnet schools. At Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy and Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, they toured and chatted with students, to whom they handed out tickets. Then they gathered more than 20 Tampa leaders — among them Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller and TSA board member Scott — for a private luncheon in Ybor City.

Over chicken nouvelle and peach cobbler, they batted around ideas to make Tampa a better city, and of how Beyoncé could lend philanthropic support during the weeks the tour was in town. Team Bey listened to each suggestion, offering praise and pledging support, financial and otherwise, for at least a few initiatives.

Daryl Johnson, the publisher of N-TouchNews.com, brought up a family scholarship designed to provide students with financial aid to finish their final year of college, created in honor of his late son. On the spot, he was promised funding for 10 more scholarships. (As of Friday, he hadn't received that funding, but a representative for Beyoncé reiterated that it is coming.)

The meeting was unlike any that some in the room had ever attended.

"Since we've been bringing artists and entertainers to perform at the stadium, I don't know of a prior artist meeting with the community, seeing what their needs are, seeing how they can invest in the community," Scott said. "It says a lot to me about Beyoncé. She not only goes into a community and walks away with (money), but she also gives money back to that community."

• • •

For weeks, rumors have circulated that Beyoncé and Jay Z are renting a house on Davis Islands, home to the rapper's pal Derek Jeter. Todd Farrell, the owner of Farrell's on the Island, said a few customers have told him they're working for the tour.

"I always ask customers where they're from. They told me," he said.

But the Queen herself?

"I haven't seen Beyoncé, if that's what you're asking," Farrell said.

The owner of record for a house rumored to be theirs hung up on a Times reporter who called. When a Times photographer stopped by the house, two men rushed over. They asked to see his ID and took photos of his face and license plate. They didn't identify themselves as Beyoncé's security. Instead, one asked: "Are you paparazzi?"

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, himself a Davis Islands resident, would not confirm or deny that the superstar couple had become temporary neighbors.

"If indeed they are, they are welcome. We're excited to have them," Buckhorn said. "I hope they decide to buy a house on Davis Islands. We wish her all the best."

• • •

Back outside the stadium, the crew is gearing up for another night of rehearsals. Roadies stoke a Big Green Egg in a parking lot filled with nondescript trailers. Muffled voices and sound effects waft above the walls. On that rotating LED column, you can just make out a cadre of dancers snapping their bodies in formation. Every so often, Beyoncé's face fills the screen lighting up the palms beyond the southern end zone.

It's barely a glimpse. But any glimpse of Beyoncé these days counts for something big. And so cars roll by with windows down, slowing along Tampa Bay Boulevard, as drivers and passengers crouch in their seats to see what little they can.

A silver sedan drifts by.

"YAAAASSSS!!! BEYONCEEEEE!" the driver screams at the stadium, before peeling off into the dusk.

Times columnist Sue Carlton, staff writer Jamal Thalji and photographer Zack Wittman contributed to this story. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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