A ritual, a blood bath, slacklining, a partial striptease, drummers in midair, traditional Basque harmonies, a psychedelic train ride — they’re all part of Madonna’s “MDNA” tour, which started its North American itinerary with an arena concert here at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night. It comes to Yankee Stadium next Thursday and Sept. 8.
Madonna has described the show in a statement as “the journey of a soul from darkness to light,” and perhaps it is. Near the beginning, after tolling church bells and chanting, a gun-toting Madonna is besieged by assailants from all directions and dispatches them in self-defense as giant spatters of blood fill the video screen. In that opening segment she sings about jealousy, divorce and, in “Revolver” — with images of guns and ammunition — about sex as a weapon.
Yet the bad-gal nastiness soon gives way to more generous impulses, trading violent shock value for flamboyant showmanship. By the end she’s sharing a big dance party. And the concert is less a story than an excellent excuse for extravagant, perpetually surprising production numbers involving more than three dozen performers, while it turns some of Madonna’s past hits inside out.
Madonna, at 54, isn’t giving in to pop obsolescence. The concert is a display of energy and nutty inventiveness, with Madonna costumed as everything from baton twirler to folk dancer. Featured among the musicians is Kalakan, a trio of Basque singers and drummers who bring medieval and folky elements to various songs, including a version of “Open My Heart” that arrived as a kind of Basque jig, with Madonna dancing and singing alongside her son Rocco.
“MDNA,” the album that supplies nearly half of the show’s songs, strove to connect Madonna with the latest highly commercial wave of electronic dance music. (The disc jockey and producer Laidback Luke opened the show with a set that remixed Madonna tunes alongside current dance floor staples.) But Madonna’s spectacle doesn’t confine itself to club land; its aspirations go further.
On this tour Madonna’s usual steely determination shares the stage with a new warmth and acceptance. One song has Nicki Minaj, on video, declaring, “There’s only one queen, and that’s Madonna,” and there’s also some sly professional rivalry. Performing “Express Yourself” Madonna slips in an excerpt from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” pointing up its very similar melody and cadence. But the show soon veers away from self-promotion. In a midconcert interlude Madonna spoke about returning to America after touring Europe, going on to reaffirm the importance of freedom of speech; she cited the jailed Russian punk group Pussy Riot.
While Madonna flaunted her toned physique — in “Human Nature” she stripped down to lingerie, with “No Fear” written on her back — she didn’t hide her maturity. Gunplay aside, the concert’s most startling moment was its new take on “Like a Virgin,” a hit from 1984. Backed by a piano player wearing a top hat, it became a waltz in a minor key, with Madonna singing in an uncharacteristically low, slightly scratchy register — her Lotte Lenya voice, unassisted.
A song that had been a chirpy claim to easy renewal became, instead, a memory of distant innocence. “Hung Up,” a more recent song that was originally catchy enough for a phone commercial, was reworked as something ominous and obsessive.
Madonna may never have an impressive voice, only an adequate and tenacious one. Perhaps its limitations help her write melodies that are easier for the vast pop audience to sing. Backing vocals and electronic effects often help her along onstage, though she does dare to expose her voice for part of the show. And Madonna still looks silly when, as she did in “I Don’t Give A,” she slings an electric guitar and makes rocker-chick faces; it’s odd that someone so physically disciplined can’t fake better guitar moves.
But Madonna and her team do know how to dazzle. Her male dancers bounced on web tightropes in slacklining routines, twisted themselves in scary contortions and even wore some high heels. “Vogue” placed Madonna at a decadent party with a chandelier overhead, surrounded by dancers in angular black-and-white costumes, while she struck her own poses in a latter-day remake of her old conical bra, now a black-ribbed exoskeleton.
As Madonna sang “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” a large drum corps in band uniforms pattered away, suspended in midair. It’s hard to guess what “I’m a Sinner” has to do with a video train ride zooming through India, or how “I’m Addicted” connects to a group martial-arts ceremony, but both productions easily transcended the clichés in the lyrics.
Madonna’s set started nearly an hour later than planned, the result of last-minute adjustments for its American premiere. After apologizing, she said, “I wanted the show to be perfect for you, because my fans deserve it, and quite frankly I deserve it.” The details have always mattered to Madonna, and in this new extravaganza they add up. The effort is visible, but so is the delirious impulse behind it.
New York Times
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