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“I’m feeling very nostalgic tonight,” Madonna said (twice, actually). “I played Madison Square Garden 30 years ago. That’s crazy.” When she trailed off for a moment, you almost thought she was lost in sentimental reverie. But as always, Madonna was laser-focused on the present, even while reminiscing. “You were there?” she asked a fan in the front row who had been talking to her. “Then I gotta give you a kiss.” For the record, a Madonna-on-fan kiss is a controlled affair: She kissed her fingers and touched the fan’s forehead, like a messiah gracing her faithful follower with one touch.
Nostalgia aside, Madonna’s restless creative spirit is on full display on the Rebel Heart Tour. Refusing to coast by playing faithful, familiar live renditions of her hits, Madge recast a number of her classics in different musical molds, with mostly positive results.
Strapping on a guitar, she skuzzed up “Burning Up” to hard rock heights and turned “True Blue” into a ukulele sing-along. For “Like a Virgin,” she lost the original instrumentation, her backup dancers and most of her clothes while turning her breakthrough hit into a sparse, Pharrell-esque jam.
In a lengthy nod to her Spanish-speaking audience, Madonna delivered a Latin-tinged medley of “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star.” The maracas might have been a little much, but the crisp Spanish guitar successfully made the songs sound newly organic. And while there weren’t as many French speakers in attendance at MSG, Madonna nodded to her Gallic fans with a surprisingly full-voiced version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” (Was it as good as Lady Gaga’s recent live “La Vie en Rose” cover? That’s a topic for opposing fan groups to viciously discuss in the comments section.)
Later in the show, Madonna began “Music” as a Jazz Age ballad before kicking the No. 1 hit into banger mode. The presence of “Music” was an effective reminder that while some compulsive naysayers tsk the Queen of Pop for trend chasing with Diplo, she brought techno to the pop mainstream years before EDM was a ubiquitous term.
As always, Madonna will never be everything to everyone. Some were undoubtedly let down to see her make it through the “Vogue” spoken word section during “Holy Water” without segueing into the full song — and to see the lights come up without any “Like a Prayer.”
But the classic tracks Madonna did pull out were judiciously selected, with attention paid to material rarely performed on her live tours. An acoustic “Who’s That Girl?” (not seen on a Madonna tour in nearly 30 years), a pumping “Deeper and Deeper” (absent from her setlist for 11 years) and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” (which segued out of new song “HeartBreak City”) were all resurrected to huge applause.
Speaking of resurrection, Catholic themes occupied a sizable portion of her stage show, as you would expect — but always with the Ciccone wink. There was a bacchanalian Last Supper, nuns gyrating on stripper polls and famous faces from Renaissance religious paintings projected onscreen during the aforementioned “Vogue” roll call.
Aside from the stunning Minotaur-filled “Living for Love,” the most effective new song in her Rebel Heart Tour arsenal was “Body Shop.” While the song was light to the point of forgettable on the album, its low-key, affable sound worked to the choreography’s advantage as Madonna teased and flirted her way through a stage filled with tires, muscle cars and muscle men.
“My grandma always said, ‘If it’s got tits or tires, it’s going to give you trouble,'” Madonna said in a faux Southern accent after the song. “Sorry, I know I’m not as funny as Amy Schumer, but I’m trying.”
Schumer, incidentally, killed her opening set (last night was her first of three opening slots for Madonna in NYC). Repeatedly mocking the flowering falsehood that it’s a new Golden Era for women in Hollywood while still making jokes about the First Lady taking a hot load, Schumer’s ability to pivot between the bawdy and the incisive proved the perfect fit for a Madonna opener.
“I thought I was gonna bomb so hard for months,” Schumer said when her set was over. “This is the best feeling ever.”
That feeling might’ve been one-upped (or quashed?) later on in the evening when Madonna brought Amy out during “Unapologetic Bitch,” bent her over and literally kicked her ass (in addition to pretending to penetrate it). Schumer was ecstatic and surprisingly rhythmic while dancing with Madonna onstage, but the Queen couldn’t let her go without some hazing.
Before Schumer left the stage, Madonna put a sock puppet on Amy’s hand and made it tell her, “Hi Amy — I’m a sock, bitch!” Waiting a few beats for an actual joke to follow, Schumer exploded into confused laughter when it became clear that was pretty much all Madge had to offer with the skit. Madonna might be good at changing creative lanes, but her attempt at improv was like switching lanes by means of rolling out of a moving car.
When the show came to a triumphant close with “Holiday,” New York’s favorite adopted daughter paraded around in an American flag while her dancers — dressed for a Gatsby-style rager at this point — paraded about with jubilant relief. It was clear they felt the rush of owning Madison Square Garden and relished it. Madonna, on the other hand, kept her composure. Clearly, failure to dominate MSG on Wednesday night was never an option for her — just like failure to dominate New York City was never an option for Madonna more than 30 years ago.
Madonna’s tour features half-naked nuns on stripper poles, and her opener Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, raucous Rockville Centre-raised comedian Amy Schumer, star of the summer smash “Trainwreck,” threw in some jokes about the sex lives of the Obamas and the drinking habits of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
However, Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” tour, which continues Thursday night at Madison Square Garden and Saturday night at Barclays Center, may also be her happiest tour in decades.
The lovely acoustic version of “True Blue” was a rare bow to romance, the sweetest of Madonna sentiments. “I’m feeling very nostalgic,” she said, adding that she first played the Garden 30 years ago.
Though the two-hour show is her attempt to give her underappreciated album the chance it deserved, it also recasts her older songs in a new light, from Latin versions of “Lucky Star” to an acoustic take on “Who’s That Girl?”
“Rebel Heart” was plagued by a series of leaks that forced Madonna to push up its release several months, but many of its songs find her at her most resilient. The title track was a pretty stripped-down declaration of survival, while the speeded-up remix of “Living for Love” was dramatic and inspirational.
Schumer talked of her incredible year in her 35-minute set.
“I don’t know why I’ve been labeled a sex comic,” said Schumer, who announced that she will headline the Garden on June 23. “It’s not fair.”
Schumer said she had worried about opening the show for months, joking: “Who better to open for Madonna than me? The answer: literally any band.”
However, Schumer won over the crowd, who gave her a standing ovation at the end. “That is the best feeling I have ever had,” she said.
Wheeling out a die-hard fan-feeding 23 tracks — naturally, some recent thumpers off Rebel Heart, her thirteenth studio disc, and surprisingly straight-forward, heartfelt renderings of classics she hasn’t performed live in decades — the Material Girl turned out her most astonishingly impressive live experience since 2006’s Confessions Tour. Although she was backed by a new, multi-cultural cadre of resistance band-flexible backup dancers, dressed in the finest stage gear from Gucci, Alexander Wang, and Miu Miu and accompanied by a small city’s worth of LED lights, M relied on her singular catalog of hits, unblemished dancing chops and 30 years experience as an unequaled provocateur to do the heavy lifting.
Before showtime, a half-hour round of comedy from opener Amy Schumer lightened the mood in the arena. Here was another button-pushing woman who needed nothing more than a mic to hold the crowd in her clutches with a routine that included several jabs at herself (choice moment: comparing her looks to a hybrid of “a Cabbage Patch Kid and Tonya Harding”) — and one noticeable one at former Madge bestie Gwyneth Paltrow, with Schumer mocking the Goop founder’s Women’s Health cover.
Once Madonna took the crucifix-shaped stage at about 9:50 p.m. (cut her some slack, only 20 minutes late this time!) though, it was clear the singer wasn’t kidding around. Descending from a cage of swords in the opening Game of Thrones-themed suite, she launched the show with Rebel Heart’s “Iconic” and “Bitch I’m Madonna,” showing off her way with a fan during an Asian-infused dance routine. Still, she stopped short of attempting the “fan flip” she pulled off during the Maria Antoinette-styled performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards.
The concert kicked into high-gear as she strapped on her heavy metal guitar and brought her loyal subjects — including onlookers Jennifer Lopez, Casper Smart, Jerry Seinfeld, Ariana Grande, and Andy Cohen — to their feet with 1983’s “Burning Up.” The setting then quickly turned back to her stock trade of mixing the spiritual and the sexual, with Madonna and her dancers slithering on polls in racy nun habits and reenacting the Last Supper (with an S&M twist) during “Holy Water,” “Devil Pray” and “Messiah.”
The rarities of Encyclopedia Madonnica kept coming after she reemerged in a Pep Boys-esque set dressed as a goth version of Sandy from Grease, singing “Body Shop” before pulling out a ukelele and letting her oft-underestimated vocals shine with an acoustic, tears-inducing take of 1986’s “True Blue.” The disco Erotica-era cut “Deeper and Deeper” followed before Madonna turned back to her vulnerable side, climbing up and down (and up and down) a spiral staircase to belt Rebel Heart’s “Heartbreak City” and an affecting “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” a nearly-forgotten torch song from Like a Virgin.
On and on, M kept proving she’s still got the moves and the motion. The mother of four reenacted her matador act from springs’ awards show circuit for “Living for Love” (phew! The cape came off without a hitch. No scary falls this time!); “La Isla Bonita,” “Into The Groove,” and “Dress You Up” were strutted out in her usual Latin-themed set; she stuck to traditional arrangements of Madonna tour regulars “Material Girl” and “Music” while switching up the setting to Harlem’s Cotton Club circa 1925, donning a Swarvoski crystal-bedazzled flapper getup.
“I’m feeling pretty nostalgic tonight,” she copped at one point. Madonna backed that up beyond her own catalog, employing her trusty ukelele for more reflective moments, including an unplugged “Who’s That Girl” (!) and a rendition of the French standard “La Vie En Rose” (Reminder: She told Us in March that seeing her daughter sing the song on the instrument has been “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”). But she swung the pendulum back to the here and now by the end, inviting Amy Schumer to escort her offstage (and giving her a sock and a banana? Madonna, please explain!) during “Unapologetic Bitch.”
For the encore, Madonna reemerged draped in an American flag (a nod to her 1990 MTV Rock The Vote ad), belting the spirited “Holiday” without being able to wipe the smile from her face. There’s a double meaning there: An acknowledgment that she’s still unbeatable in every regard as a pop star, with the show acting as a supreme victory lap through a venue she noted she had first performed in 30 years prior. But it also signified what was perhaps most evident the entire time: She had the most fun she’s had onstage in recent memory, lifting her often self-seriousness from recent treks and reveling in the art of being Madonna.
She sang the Edith Piaf ballad “La Vie En Rose” in French, alone on the stage, strumming her ukelele. (“It’s en français, though, okay? So try and sing along if you can.”) After “Material Girl,” she tossed a wedding bouquet to a gay couple up front, then snickered, “Suckers!” She used crucifixes as stripper poles, doing the “Vogue” rap while writhing against a dancer clad in a nun’s wimple and feathery hot pants. Her cassocked dancers simulated a group-grope orgy at the Last Supper while the guest of honor chanted “Yeezus loves my pussy best!” And all night long, her banter was the toppest of notch, like when she introduced her gorgeous new acoustic country-hoedown version of “True Blue.” “No swear words in this song,” she announced. “This is a song about true love. I didn’t know what I was talking about when I wrote it.” Glad you’re the one who brought that up, Madonna.
She hasn’t reached so far onstage, musically or emotionally, since her 2001 Drowned World extravaganza. Her last couple of tours had spectacular performances, but dodgy set lists. This time Madonna has much stronger new songs to play with, from Rebel Heart — and she brilliantly revamps the hits. She played a Flying V for a punked-out “Burning Up,” dropping to her knees for her guitar solo — the first time she played Madison Square Garden, 30 years ago, she got on her knees in front of the male guitarist while he played a solo, and don’t think she doesn’t remember these things.
Opening act Amy Schumer helped set the tone — when was the last time you saw a stand-up comedian slay in an arena? Schumer was clearly right at home in a room full of Madonna fans: “I know who’s here. It’s like taking a warm bath in a tub full of dick that doesn’t want you.” She talked abut how hot Bradley Cooper’s girlfriend is (“She’s like a panther fucked a gazelle and they fucked Gisele”) and how hot Bradley Cooper is (“you would just grab your ankles and say ‘any hole’s fine'”). For the encore, she came back out to let Madonna kick her in the ass, right before “Holiday.”
But it was Madonna’s night. “Body Shop” was a Fifties-style dance routine where she rolled in on the hood of a vintage Chevy, just like Christie Brinkley in Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith” video,” then frolicked in glitter ankle boots with a harem of hot greaser mechanics, all looking like the boy who knocked her up in the “Papa Don’t Preach” video. (So true: Italians do it better!) Then she sat her dancers down on a pile of tires and adopted a Dolly Parton twang to tell them, “Like my grandma always said, if it’s got tits or tires, it’s gonna give you trouble.”
“Like a Virgin” was one of the night’s peak moments — the song got pimped up with the Egyptian-lover electro-beats from “Music,” while she took the stage alone to revamp her cowgirl line-dance moves from the “Don’t Tell Me” video. She wore fingerless black gloves, reading her 1984 Boy Toy self, yet she humps the stage with enough verve and wit to make the girl she used to be look like the shy type. She also said, “It’s so hot in here,” which is Madonna-speak for, “You don’t mind if I strip this shirt off, do you?”
She kept getting surprisingly sentimental about playing the Garden, 30 years after her 1985 Virgin Tour. Back then, she always used to ask the crowd, “Will you marry me?” Tonight the girl was in a slightly shadier mood. “I don’t know about marriage,” she mused, after her bouquet toss. “Do you want to marry me?” When fans screamed, she replied, “No, you probably don’t. But maybe it’ll be third time lucky.” She resurrected long-unheard gems like “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Deeper and Deeper,” along with a snippet of “Justify My Love.” (“You put this in me, so now what?” — such an underrated but on point Madonna line.)
“Music” began as a jazz-flapper café ballet, with Madonna in Twenties Gatsby drag, before it blew up to hit the electro-sleaze heights. (As it happens, it was 15 years ago this week that Madonna released Music, still her hardest-rocking and most seductive album.) After the devils-and-bullfighters-and-Minotaurs pageant of “Living My Life,” she began the gratifyingly long Latin segment with “La Isla Bonita,” stretching into a generous and unhurried medley of “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star.”
“I’m feeling very nostalgic tonight,” she told the crowd. “Do you people understand I played Madison Square Garden 30 years ago?” She kissed a fan in a 1985 Virgin Tour shirt who claimed he was there — for all we know, he might have been the goth club kid doing the cobweb dance in the “Into The Groove” video. It led to the emotional highlight of the night, when she picked up her acoustic guitar for one of her saltiest and best Number One hits, a song she hasn’t performed since the Eighties: “Who’s that Girl,” leading the audience in the question “¿Quien es esa niña?” The question hung in the air. “I still don’t know,” Madonna said after the song. “I still don’t know. I think I’m not supposed to know — maybe that’s what life’s about, figuring out who the fuck you are.”
In her producer Nile Rodgers’ essential memoir Le Freak, he tells the story of taking Madonna to Madison Square Garden in 1984 to see Duran Duran, where she sat unnoticed and unrecognized in the audience. Just a few months later, she returned, except this time she was onstage as the headliner. (Duran Duran were back in NYC this week too — and like Madonna, brazen enough to jumpstart an excellent show with an excellent new song, “Paper Gods.” The Eighties are the flattest of circles.) But that’s why she’s Madonna. She might be still figuring out who the fuck she is — but a stage this size is always the place she goes to look for clues.
Her choice of support act on this homecoming gig – since New York is the place she remade herself – is very Madonna, all wrong on paper but in practice, right on the money. Amy Schumer takes the stage in front of a massive backdrop of Madonna’s face staring at the heavens and clutching a sword to her breast, the massive machinery of pop music concealed behind it. Swigging from a bottle of champagne, and with nothing but a microphone and a stool, the comic of the moment says that she was asked: “‘Who better than you to open up for Madonna?’” “Uh,” she rhetorically answers. “Any band?”
Yet Schumer’s perfect reading of the audience, in which straight men are such a minority as to be non-existent, (“It’s like taking a warm bath in a ton of dick that doesn’t want you”) weapons-grade filth (“We’re here to rethink cum”) and description of the Kardashians as a family who “take the faces they were born with as a light suggestion” reduce the crowd to marshmallow before Madonna has even made an appearance.
Twenty-five years from her apotheosis, 1990’s Blond Ambition tour, Madonna’s vision of the pop concert – in which music is combined with dance, video and costume, in order to reconceptualise familiar hits into an overwhelming sensory bombardment – has now been copied by generations of pop stars. She’s also notorious for stuffing the setlist with new material, thwarting those who would love an oldies show. At first the signs aren’t promising: the show starts with film of Madonna writhing in a sequinned dress in a cage, while her voiceover chunters that creativity is being threatened by corporations (ironic, given that Madonna is a formidable corporation in her own right).
She then descends from the ceiling similarly banged up, while knights in armour march down the stage, which juts almost the length of the arena. It’s Madonna does Game of Thrones. The first song is Iconic, one of the dimmer bulbs from Rebel Heart, followed by Bitch I’m Madonna, a great title in search of a decent song. But when the dancers depart, and Madonna struts down the runway to strap on a flying V, the show has lift-off with Burning Up. One of her earliest records, it amounts to a manifesto (“I’ll do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame”) and all these years later it still grabs you by the throat. Aged 57, Madonna is still palpably hungry, and her performance has an enduring rawness and truth. Unmediated and undiluted, she’s the ringmaster of her own circus, connecting with her hardcore in a totally instinctive way, regardless of the choreography, pyrotechnics and fancy costumes (created by a battery of top fashion designers – but really, who cares?).
Madonna’s striking ability to imbue songs that might seem throwaway with significance and depth is illustrated four songs in. On record, Holy Water is a mortifying extended metaphor for her, ahem, vaginal secretions. But on stage, it’s a Ken Russell fantasia in which a scene of transgender naughty nuns poledancing (including Madonna climbing some 12 feet into the air to stand on a revolving naked man, one of several moments which involve genuine physical peril) morphs into a genuinely unnerving demonic parody of the Last Supper in which Madonna ends up tied up on the table, legs akimbo.
Two more album tracks follow – the dodgy Devil Pray and the lovely Messiah – before the show hits its second section, set in a 50s garage where Madonna and the dancers prance to Body Shop (another number DOA on record) before gathering on a pile of tyres for a ukulele singalong to True Blue. From then on, it’s clear that the Rebel Heart tour connects today’s Madonna with the energy and boldness of her early days – there’s precious little from the many eras in between. HeartBreakCity, performed atop a spiral staircase, morphs into her mid-80s, yearning cover of Rose Royce’s Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, before she tears into Like a Virgin, given a 21st-century update, but performed solo, with all the allure and aggression with which she infused it when it was first released.
The following section has a Mexican theme, Madonna in full Day of the Dead finery, and of course performing La Isla Bonita, the only song from her past she revisits on almost every tour, along with Dress You Up, Into the Groove and Who’s That Girl? – a song, she says, about “not knowing who the fuck you are”. It’s a moving affirmation of her ongoing, instinctive relationship with her Latino audience.
The title track of Rebel Heart is performed against a morphing backdrop of fan art depicting her many image changes, though the show actually reveals how consistent she has been underneath it all, endowed with an unswerving belief in the transformative power of pop. The final straight is pure pleasure, Madonna in a flapper’s outfit, performing a jazz-era take on Music (in visuals alone – musically it still packs the robotic punch that made it irresistible 15 years ago), then going into a showstopping Material Girl, performed on an upended video screen titled 45 degrees, in which Madonna pushes the top-hatted dancers down the slope, one by one, in a reboot of the famous video.
And then there’s a moment of intimacy, Madonna perching at the end of the circular hydraulic platform with her ukulele, announcing that she is going to perform one of her favourite songs. What ensues is an unaccompanied version of Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose, suddenly revealing that after all these years of being dismissed as a singer, Madonna has the pipes. Her rendition bites through the inherent campness of the concept to locate something unarguably moving. Finally, Madonna brings Schumer out again during Unapologetic Bitch, spanking her and then giving her a banana as a reward. Rising to the challenge, Schumer pretends to stick it up her backside, to the delight of the audience.
Holiday, performed with the stars and stripes rampant, is a victory lap. Madonna had said: “I’m feeling pretty nostalgic tonight … I performed here 30 years ago.” Her Madison Square Garden concert seems simultaneously like the latest stage of a 32-year durational performance art piece about stardom and an affirmation that there is simply no other performer like her. Tonight, Madonna kills it.
by Billy Armas:
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