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It's like a prayer — Madonna's a blast in concert again

The singer brought her 'Sticky & Sweet' tour to Oracle Arena for fun-filled concert Saturday

It's been a long time since Madonna was this much fun.

Gone are the days of convoluted storylines (2001's "Drowned World Tour"), heavy-handed themes (2004's "Re-Invention Tour") and controversial antics (2006's "Confessions," during which Madonna hung herself on a huge cross).

This time around, the Material Girl just wants to make some dough and show her fans a good time, both of which she accomplished as she brought her "Sticky and Sweet Tour" to the Oracle Arena in Oakland on Saturday. She performs at the same venue at 8 tonight.

Despite ticket prices that topped out near $400, a capacity crowd turned out to see the 50-year-old pop icon on the first night of her Bay Area stay. As a thank you, the flamboyant vocalist turned in a two-hour show that was filled with good songs, nifty costumes, cool theatrics and, as always, great dance routines.

By Madonna standards, it was a fairly straightforward 24-song affair. In fact the most shocking thing about the show was that there was nothing really shocking about it. That's a refreshing change for Ms. Ciccone — we'll use her maiden name, since she's divorcing film director Guy Ritchie. Too often in the past, Madonna has seemed to focus more on stirring controversy rather than entertaining the crowd.

What all this amounts to is that, for the first time this millennium, people are most apt to walk away from a Madonna show talking about the music, not the spectacle.

There is, however, much worth saying about the latter.

The concert began about 45 minutes late — which provided fans with extra time to shop the souvenir stands for $20 Madonna coffee mugs, $10 Madonna shot glasses and $15 Madonna heart-shaped sunglasses, as well as $25 "Vote Obama" T-shirts.

The house lights dimmed and the overhead screens showed a Willy Wonka-inspired animated segment, which tied nicely into the title of Madonna's latest CD, "Hard Candy." The princess of pop then appeared at center stage on an M-shaped throne, as tux-and-tails-clad dancers helped her usher in the opening number, "Candy Shop."

She followed with another solid new track, "Beat Goes On," before reaching back into her bag of hits for "Human Nature" and "Vogue." Those two tunes really brought the fans to life as they watched their hero gyrate about the stage and along the catwalk that extended half way across the arena floor.

The reaction from the crowd would swell each time Madonna played one of her classic numbers, such as "La Isla Bonita." This tour, however, is more about showcasing the new material than it is about digging up the past.

It wouldn't be entirely fair to say that Madonna was reluctant to play the fan favorites, but she was certainly hesitant to do them in familiar fashions. Each hit performed this evening was arranged differently than the original recording, which might be Madonna's way of saying that she refuses to play the nostalgia game. Most of the newly realized renditions, especially a roughed-up, rocking "Borderline," were quite intriguing.

The last half of the show was devoted mainly to newer material, with only three offerings, "La Isla Bonita," "Like a Prayer" and "Like a Virgin," hailing from the singer's classic '80s catalog. The song selection, oddly, only seemed marginally important. What mattered more was that Madonna was having fun — and it was contagious.

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