Rebel Heart Tour Boston 26 September 2015

Rebel Heart Tour Boston
26 September 2015

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by Giovanni Bolivar:

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Madonna carries the burden of being 57 in a world where Britney is an old maid at 33. But if we ignore Madge’s age, or forget that the current crop of hot, unremarkable young things run the pop industry, we can step back and enjoy the Rebel Heart Tour for the mature spectacle that it is.

Whoa, whoa, I know crucifixes as stripper poles and nuns in short shorts isn’t grown up. But Madonna’s packed TD Garden show last night still seemed so much more adult (in every sense of the word) than the infantilism of Katy Perry’s dancing sharks and Taylor Swift’s cutesy ’80s fetish.

Madonna’s visions have a smart, thought-out feel her imitators can’t replicate. Her dancers’ execution makes her would-be peers look like amateurs — the simple, thrilling choreography of “Deeper and Deeper” reminded that talent beats tech every time. Oh, and her pop crushes all comers.

“At the end of the day the smoke and mirrors don’t matter,” she told the crowd strumming an acoustic guitar ahead of (surprisingly) killer “Who’s That Girl.” “It’s the music that matters.”

Her new songs balanced the Material Girl with a modern one.

She opened with “Iconic” and its bizarre sample of Mike Tyson ranting about his unequaled skills before dropping into a thumping groove that continued into “(expletive) I’m Madonna” and “Burning Up.” Her “Holy Water”/“Vogue” mashup mixed sex and the sacred (and those pole-dancing nuns). “Living For Love,” maybe her best song this century, delivered the hook and gospel harmonies of old-school Top 40 — and had loads more snap and pop than her Grammy performance.

Unwilling to be enveloped in nostalgia, she deconstructed her classics.

Like “Who’s That Girl,” “True Blue” got an acoustic makeover, this one with Madonna on ukulele. Stalking the catwalk alone, she pimped out “Like a Virgin” with a fresh club beat.

The band opened “Music” with some jazz age swagger. She extended the flamenco vibe of “La Isla Bonita” through a medley of “Dress You Up”/“Into The Groove”/“Lucky Star.”

Ignore the constant chatter surrounding her private life and turn your back on the idea a pop star must be irrelevant after 30. Instead dig into her exotic and familiar cocktail until she can’t mix it up anymore — she’s good for at least one more mega-event like this one. Embrace that her blonde ambition continues to make her the genre’s greatest icon.

There’s a long tradition in popular culture of artists who pushed the envelope and redefined the boundaries, but when it comes to pop music, few performers have so gleefully filled the role of iconoclast as Madonna. To say that she’s been a groundbreaker for female music stars would be an understatement, and a short list of current stars who were largely influenced or inspired by her would have to include Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Pink, The Spice Girls and Nicki Minaj.

But the prototype herself was onstage at TD Garden in Boston Saturday night, and her two-hour extravaganza didn’t disappoint. Madonna may have ventured afield into acting, writing, and assorted charity work, but first and foremost she’s a pop star. In fact, to be more precise, she has always taken immense pleasure in being a “pop tart,” thematically pushing up against the societal norms of sex and proper behavior for young ladies, and not least of which, teasing her conservative Catholic upbringing.

Part and parcel of Madonna’s musical identity has been a virtually unbroken string of dance-pop hits, whether they be updated disco, hip-hop-flavored r&b, or techno-driven beat-heavy epics. Her songs are frequently ridiculously infectious dance numbers, and her lyrics have that knack of getting your attention, whether she’s happily being outrageous or making a serious point about empowerment – and sometimes she’s capable of doing both simultaneously. Controversy may be her middle name, but nobody ever accused Madonna of being boring, and Saturday’s 23-song romp surely was anything but boring, and hardly predictable.

Overall impressions of this “Rebel Heart Tour” would have to center on the sheer spectacle of the night, where you could spend a thousand words describing each song, because the staging and dance routines, mini-dramas and quick and frequently humorous sidelights, were so intricate. But there were also a lot of musical styles covered, and if most of the music was dance-club friendly, Madonna proved herself to be an omniverous and laudably versatile stylist.

To perhaps extract a quick soundbite, Madonna’s evening ranged all the way from roaring techno on “Bitch I’m Madonna” to pretty mainstream rock ’n’ roll on “Body Shop” to almost Celtic folk-rock on “Devil Pray” to traditional Spanish on “La Isla Bonita” to a quite lovely acoustic cover of Edith Piaf’s signature tune, “La Vie En Rose,” where the singer’s ukulele, and a very low-key accordion was the only accompaniment. That’s a lot of musical variety, and Madonna, 57, and her four-piece backup band, two backup vocalists, and 14 dancers delivered it all with panache.

The word before the concert was that it was not quite a sellout, but it was hard to find any empty seats by the time Madonna appeared, and the throng of about 17,000 fans roared as soon as the lights went down. The large elevated main stage at one end of the arena, led down to a catwalk that stretched the length of the TD Garden floor. The far end of the catwalk ended in a heart-shaped stage, while the middle of the catwalk had a smaller circular stage, and there were openings in all the stages, so that dancers, or the star herself, could pop up from below at any time, or, at a song’s end, disappear.

With a Madonna video playing on the huge screens behind the stage the night began with 10 dancers costumed as medieval executioners in gold and black, and carrying large gold pikes ending in crosses, fanning out over the catwalk, while four female dancers in slightly different outfits appeared on the main stage. While the sound of “Iconic,” the cut from Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album wafted through the night, including its Mike Tyson spoken word snippet on the wages of fame, the star appeared from overhead. Encased in a steel cage, Madonna was lowered to the center of the main stage, where the female dancers released her. As she joined the dance troupe, singing all the while, she engaged with the executioners, even linking her knees over one of those staffs as the men carried her, upside down. Somehow, by the tune’s end, it seemed that Madonna had conquered and tamed the ominous cadre of executioners, and she certainly had the Boston crowd won over.

For “Bitch I’m Madonna” the staging included four female dancers dressed as geisha girls, while a late segment had the male dancers engaged in mock martial arts combat, while Nicki Minaj, who sings on the recorded version, appeared for her parts on the video screens. Madonna donned an electric guitar to lead the charge on the funky march “Burning Up.”

The segment that tweaked Catholicism last night began with “Holy Water,” which, to summarize, Madonna seems to equate with female sexuality. That number began with four female dancers dressed as nuns, but nuns with bikini tops and white hot pants. Madonna ended up dancing and interacting with the dancers, and a fair interpretation would be that redemption can be found in sensual congress. Somehow that tune ended with Madonna lying atop a Last Supper table, where she began the acoustic-centered “Devil Pray,” as the video screens showed clips of people being baptized, and again she engaged and appeared to subdue the male dancers with her very femininity.

We should also add that, despite all those plot twists, Madonna was singing passionately throughout. Everything appeared to be live and without noticeable vocal enhancement, and with so many of the tunes turning into mini-pop-operas, Madonna’s voice was in top form all night.

Madonna took three breaks during the night, and it was done so cleverly fans may not have noticed. While one of her hits was being played, and the dancers were performing all sorts of feats, Madonna would simply not be there, although her recorded voice was being heard.

Moving along, “Body Shop” featured dancers dressed as mechanics, and a set piece built around the front end of what seemed to be a 1965 Ford. That tune was another one centered on acoustic guitar, and had a definite rock foundation, almost as if Bob Seger wandered into a dance club.

“You know what they say,” Madonna said at the song’s conclusion, “tits or tires, they’re all trouble…I’m here to stir up some (trouble) tonight..”

A very sweet take on “True Blue” had just Madonna and guitarist Monte Pittman on ukuleles, and it came across as a nod to 1950s doo-wop. A pounding disco beat drove “Deeper and Deeper” Madonna ended that one on the heart-shaped end of the catwalk, and a spiral staircase dropped from the ceiling, for “Heartbreak City.” While Madonna sang that torch song, a male dancer kept trying to approach her, with some startling acrobatics on the stairs, as she kept avoiding and rebuffing him. At the song’s finish, she pushed him off the 20-foot high top of the stairs, and he landed on a mat that had magically appeared from below. “See what happens? You don’t mess with the queen..” Madonna said, tongue firmly in cheek.

“Like A Virgin” seemed to be a new addition to the show, at least for Boston, and that old chestnut had the TD Garden rocking as fans danced and sang along, and Madonna, still amazingly limber and tireless at 57, danced and twirled her jacket overhead. “S.E.X.,” a rumbling club dance tune, got a rather obvious staging, with four couples entwined on four beds, acting out lovemaking. Three of the couples were boy-girl, and the fourth was two males.

A more striking staging – and seriously, this concert was like 23 mini-movies – came on “Living for Love,” where Madonna and her female dancers came out dressed as matadors, while the male dancers were costumed as satyrs, complete with horns. That operatic piece of dance-pop mania ended with the star conquering the satyrs, even taking the horns from one.

Things slowed down for that wonderful taste of Spanish music on “La Isla Bonita,” all acoustic guitar at a rapid pace, with all the dancers dressed in colorful Spanish outfits. That acoustic guitar feel was repeated a bit later to good effect on a simple and evocative “Who’s That Girl,” performed on the far end of the catwalk. Madonna noted that when all the trappings and extra arena show stuff is taken away, “the music is what really matters,” and that song surely proved it.

The title cut “Rebel Heart” was a bracing bit of dance-rock, leading up to Madonna’s last break. With her offstage, while her Kanye West-produced tune “Illuminati” was thumping over the speakers, seven of the dancers climbed 20-foot poles and began swaying back and forth, over the audience seated on the floor. Whatever material those elastic poles were, the swinging dancers defied gravity, and when eight more dancers, dressed in tux-and-tails, came out, there was some fun as the airborne dancers tried to swipe their comrades’ top hats.

The stage turned into a swank nightclub for the mashup of “Music/Candy Shop,” a thumping disco burner with some freaky sidelights. One dancer, for example, wore a half-tuxedo/half-hot pants and blouse thing, so that from one side he was a male, and from the other a girl. Meanwhile, a quartet of female dancers followed and danced with Madonna all over the stage and catwalk as she sang, and one of those four dancers was topless.

A bit later “Material Girl” got a new reading, a slowed-down rendition, as if to add more majesty to Madonna’s old hit. That one featured Madonna atop the main stage, tossing aside male dancer/suitors, who then slid down a long incline to the lower level. The Edith Piaf cover – done in French – was next, a really eye-opening chance to hear the star emote, and her voice was clear and affecting.

Madonna had mentioned that Saturday was her son David’s 10th birthday, and the little guy – one of two kids she adopted from Malawi – joined the dancers for the kinetic, beat-heavy “Unapologetic Bitch.” David followed mom, in his red coat, but then mixed in admirably with the male dancers, and even did a cool break-dance segment of his own, ending with a big split, as the crowd roared. That ended the regular set, but Madonna returned for the easy dance groove of “Holiday,” with the dancers returning in various stages of undress, as if they’d truly been surprised at the encore.

It was one last funny plot twist in this night of stirring mini-dramas, outrageousness, empowerment, audacity, and beyond a doubt, some thrilling music.

Truth or dare?

Truth: Madonna’s performance at TD Garden on Saturday night was a crowning achievement in a year that has unjustly denied her such moments.

Let me put it this way. The narrative surrounding Madonna in 2015 has not exactly been kind to the 57-year-old pop icon. You would think by now she has earned the right, and the public’s trust, to be whomever she wants. And yet the older she gets, the more she has to counter sexist questions of why she’s not acting her age (“I am,” she has said) and what is left for her to do.

Those critiques faded inside the Garden as Madonna reasserted a longstanding hallmark of her career: She is at her best and fights her hardest the minute you count her out.

“Tell me I’m no good/ And I’ll be great,” she sang on the opening “Iconic,” a battle cry from this year’s “Rebel Heart,” a very good pop album that deserved to sell more than it did.

The accompanying Rebel Heart Tour reveals a softer, more reflective Madonna who’s celebrating her legacy while forging her future in the genre. There is no blueprint for her trajectory, so, critics be damned, she’s blazing her own.

And she’s obviously having so much fun right alongside her fans. This new tour is a window into Madonna as both deity and human being. It was heavy on spectacle brought to life by a band, her many elastic dancers, glitzy costumes, and streamlined set pieces that kept the production stylish and fluid.

The show also allowed Madonna to appear exposed. Three songs in, she stalked the runway extension of the stage alone with an electric guitar as she sang “Burning Up,” an early club classic. My jaw dropped when she dug into “Like a Virgin,” once again by herself on the catwalk, simply dancing and singing and making eye contact with the audience. It was poignant to see an established artist revisiting her roots and engaging with them all over again.

She also found fresh ways to enliven hits that are now decades old while connecting the dots to more recent work. A matador theme set the tone for “Living for Love,” her latest hit, which segued into the flamenco beat of “La Isla Bonita.” It was a seamless setup for a Mexican-tinged revamping of “Dress You Up” that mashed in snippets of “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star.”

Fans will forever quibble with the set list, but this tour gets the balance right, from the thumping groove of “Deeper and Deeper” to the closing euphoria of “Holiday.” Madonna opened the vaults, dusting off favorites she hasn’t performed on tour since the mid-’80s. On acoustic guitar, she reclaimed “Who’s That Girl” as an introspective ballad, and with Madonna strumming ukulele, “True Blue” featured her most stirring vocal of the evening.

She delivered “La vie en rose,” the Edith Piaf classic, in its original French, leading you to wonder why she hasn’t reinvented herself as a supper-club chanteuse. She dedicated the song to her son David, who turned 10 on Saturday, and then brought him out to dance for the audience. It was a sweet mother-son moment that was suddenly comical when you realized the song she was singing: “Unapologetic Bitch.” (See? Some things never change.)

With the pope visiting the US, it was prime time for Madonna to stir the pot with some blasphemy. On “Holy Water,” a reference to what a certain part of her body tastes like, her female dancers donned nun’s habits and twerked on stripper poles shaped like crosses.

Having seen her live a handful of times over the past decade, I admit I’m guilty of wondering how much longer Madonna can pull off such a demanding and youthful pageantry.

Truth: She can — and will — do it as damn well long as she wants.

If the devil has a place for performers who have blasphemed against God, it’s a safe bet there’s already a human-sized hibachi with Madonna’s name on it waiting for her in hell.

And, if so, Saturday night in front of 13,000 screaming fans at the TD Garden, Madge sealed the deal for eternal damnation, while putting on one hell of a show for her devoted fan base to cherish for years to come.

Then again, this is Madonna, the same risk-taking, taboo-breaking, button-pushing pop provocateur who has never bowed to the heat of controversy or apologized for her indiscretions.

And after 30-plus years in a business in which pop stars burn out and fade as fast as matchsticks, Madonna has not only outlived most of her musical rivals, she has proven to be practically immortal. In the end, she will probably outlive us all.

Madonna, the grand dame of the pop concert stage, knows how to put on a dazzling show. She also knows how to make a memorable stage entrance. And when she wasn’t pushing societal buttons during her spirited 21-song set that lasted nearly two hours Saturday night, she was playing the hits, sometimes unrecognizable and totally revamped, other times faithful and capturing the spirit of the original.

The concert was broken up into four mini-musical vignettes – the over-the-top samurai-sacrilegious part; the down-to-earth, loose and carefree part; the spirited Spanish fiesta part; and the roaring ’20s jazz club part.

On the elaborate opening number, which looked like “The Last Samurai” meets “Game of Thrones,’ Madonna’s dozen male dancers came out on the stage dressed as a squadron of cross-carrying, armored warriors suited up for battle, while voice-overs played of the singer pontificating about using her female attributes to get ahead in the world, her “insatiable desire to be noticed” and “too much creativity being crushed beneath the wheel of corporate branding.”

Despite the last mantra being a case of the pot calling the kettle black, an incarcerated Madonna, inside a steel cage made out of pointy spears, was lowered from the rafters. Wearing a red and black ceremonial kimono adorned with black furs, Madonna broke out of her imprisonment and into “Iconic,” the first of nine songs from her latest, “Rebel Heart.” As a song it was secondary to the stage antics, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.

“Holy Water,” the raunchiest song on her latest, arguably is Madonna’s raunchiest choreographed stage spectacle to date (and that’s saying a lot). Accompanied by a mini-convent of scantily clad nuns, Madonna led her flock to elongated crucifixes that doubled as stripper poles and they all started gyrating their torsos for Jesus. Interspersed with snippets of “Vogue” (which amusingly flickered a who’s who of saints as depicted by Renaissance masters), “Holy Water” went over the top with a restaging of “The Last Supper” as if it was catered by director Ken Russell. And not only was Madonna served up as the main course, her cup, ahem, runneth over.

After a brief video/dance interlude, the stage was transformed into an auto body shop, complete with mountains of tires and a bevy of chiseled good-looking grease monkeys eager to check under Madonna’s hood. The number, “Body Shop,” had a breezy, feel-good vibe, especially compared to the very dark but captivating opening sequence.

Wearing a jewel-encrusted blazer and checkered shirt that looked like it was stolen out of Paula Abdul’s closet (circa 1988), Madonna continued the fun with a ukulele-strummed “True Blue,” which turned into a playful singalong. Then the stage was transformed, once again, into a pulsating dance club with “Deeper and Deeper.”

On the bile-spewing heartbreaker “HeartBreakCity,” Madonna poured her guts out while going up and down a spiral staircase, all the time in hot pursuit by the man who broke her heart. While the song was strong enough on its own, Madonna belted out a snippet from “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” which was greeted with thunderous applause. In the end, Madonna gave the abusive suitor his just deserts by pushing him off the top of the stairs and watching free-fall to a hidden mattress down below. At least I hope there was a hidden mattress down below.

Madonna’s biggest triumph of the evening was when she delivered one of her most indelible signature hits, “Like A Virgin,” and celebrated – rather than distance herself from – her past. Doing classic dance moves that harked back to her early “Boy Toy” days, Madonna commanded the stage with her playful body language and smirking stage humping. Performing without any dancers or theatrical fanfare, Madonna proved once again that all she needs to sell a song is herself.

Arguably the concert’s best musical vignette was the Spanish-tinged segment, which culminated with “La Isla Bonita” and featured a few surprises.

After Madonna played matador to red-horned, bare-chested minotaurs on “Living For Love,” “La Isla Bonita” transformed the Garden into an all-out fiesta, complete with flamenco guitars and sexy Latino dance couples. The only thing missing was Antonio Banderas, Madonna’s co-star in “Evita.”

A Latin-tinged “Dress You Up” contained snippets of “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star” before erupting into an infectious conga line on the catwalk, and an acoustic version of “Who’s That Girl” hinted that there was more soul-searching in the song than the original pop hit ever indicated.

Going into the homestretch, Madonna made the people come together with “Music,” one of the evening’s most colorful and ambitious stage outing. Madonna, wearing a sparkly flapper dress, was cast as a sultry jazz singer in a speakeasy nightclub. This lively segment also included Madonna dancing on the tables, a barroom brawl over Madge’s honor and a Josephine Baker look-alike who danced topless.

Even better, “Material Girl” was deliciously over the top with Madonna being pursued by elegant gentlemen wearing top hats, tuxes and tails; she unmercifully sent them tumbling down, one by one, off a platform angled at 45 degrees. She completed the number with a mock walk down the aisle, complete with wedding veil and bridal bouquet and a joke about the three rings of marriage (engagement ring, wedding ring and suffering – get it?).

Not only did she sing “La Vie en Rose” with little accompaniment atop a circular riser, Madonna dedicated the song to her son David, who turned 10 that night, making it the first time in history that anyone dedicated an Edith Piaf song to a 10-year-old on his birthday.

Wearing a red top hat and sleeveless blue jacket with white stars and draped with the American flag, Madonna ended the evening with the celebratory and (unbeknownst to me, until Saturday night) patriotic “Holiday,” a perfect number to end an impeccable pop concert.

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