Madonna – Earls Court, London
Gig played on: Sat 7 Jul 2001
Whether we’re fans or not, most of us have been aware of Madonna’s progress over the last 18 years. Holiday was a good tune right? Like A Virgin was a bit saucy eh? Don’t you think Like A Prayer‘s video was a tad sacrilegious? In Bed With Madonna? What a bitch! And that Sex book! Well really!
Yet, whether cynically pressing society’s buttons or challenging taboos, upsetting the odd vicar or inspiring the Girl Power generation, Madonna was always intent – with the aid of well-chosen producers/writers- upon making perfect pop music. Naughty but nice gems that would stand the test of time, long after any fading tabloid headline.
Back in 1983 few could have guessed it would come to this. That the plump New York dancer, who dressed like she’d been dragged through a charity shop backwards, would all these years later be the world’s largest female pop icon – a lean, mean, slicky marketed money making machine.
Tonight though, on her first world tour in eight years, Madonna, 43 next month, stands as a testament to strength of character, talent and self-reinvention. Which is why people are sitting on plastic seats which cost them £85. And why touts are hawking tickets outside for £1000 each.
Whether any artist is worth that kind of money is debatable. Whether a Madonna stetson hat should set you back £80 is anybody’s guess. For tonight at least, the sea of people here, many of them sporting said ten-gallon garments, don’t care about the money – £25 a programme anyone? And, as the Mexican waves swell, ripple and crash around the stadium with increasing ferocity, even for the non-believer the sense of anticipation borders on the unbearable.
In a flickering neon frenzy the lighting rig rises slowly from floor to ceiling Close Encounters style. The band – a bunch of leatherclad, Vivienne Westwood-ish cyber-punks – surface from trap doors. Madonna, sporting a Union Jack and tartan kilt, glides through swirling stage mist and, as the crowd goes ruddy mental, launches into Drowned World. Such is the crowd’s din that you can’t hear her for the first few lines.
Madders has called the Drowned World set “a theatrical presentation” of her music. Thus over the next hour and a half we’re treated to an energetic, deftly choreographed show of sex, violence, humour, breathtaking dance routines, striking visuals and, of all things, a mechanical bucking bull. The show mixes West End musical with traditional rock concert and, disappointingly, largely shuns earlier hits, concentrating on material from the Mirwais and William Orbit collaborations Ray Of Light and Music. Whether those mohicaned oiks are playing their instruments all the time and whether Madge might be miming on occasion, it is hard to tell. Certainly doesn’t look like it.
Next up, the fervent disco stomp of Impressive Instant, dancers sporting gas masks and goggles with torches on wriggle and writhe inside fishermen’s keep nets! Don’t ask.
Candy Perfume Girl, the first song tonight to feature Madge on guitar -she’s been learning for eight months- features metal riffs, punk imagery and a thrashing frenzy worthy of Marilyn Manson. Madonna’s first words to the crowd are “f**k off motherf**kers!” Charming girl.
Pausing only for a quick chorus of “get your tits out for the boys!” Madonna, before a psychedelic backdrop, launches into Beautiful Stranger. The shiny Austin Powers pop original now has a darker, sexier edge. Madonna climbs up some steps for a bit of pole dancing before dragging a stage hand (the beautiful stranger?) out of the pit for a bit of bump n’ grind.
The first signs of real life in the crowd come with Ray Of Light, its relentless ravey beats prompting much dancing from many who previously could only manage awestruck “oohs” and “aahs”, like kids at their first fireworks display.
Frozen‘s trancey rhythms, find the dancers dressed like Samurai in a stark, post-apocalyptic skyline. ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ starts with vocoders and whispers, Madonna on her knees before a Samurai threatening to lop her head off with a dirty great sword.
Tonight’s visual highlight comes with Mer Girl Part 1, Madonna and others suspended on wires, act out a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon style fight scene. It’s fantastic, the song jerking to a halt as Madonna snaps her opponent’s neck. Nice.
A bruised, battered and swollen singer smiles down from the backdrop to Sky Fits Heaven -she shoots a bloke at the end of that one, escaping through a trap door. Mer Girl Part 2 features Manga cartoons and Samurai cheerleaders and I Deserve It has Madonna sat strumming on what looks like a bubblewrap sofa.
“Shit I’m gonna sing you a song about lurve” says Mrs Ritchie in a southern drawl. ‘Don’t Tell Me’ follows, line-dancing and stetsons for once, looking cool. Almost. Human Nature meanwhile, finds the singer enjoying a highly suggestive rodeo ride on the gyrating bull -which was apparently blessed by an Oklahoma priest before the tour!
“Everything that happens to us, we are responsible for. I dedicate this to you.” says Madonna introducing Secret, the rare oldie – taken from ‘Bedtime Stories’- accompanied by black and white footage of Catholics, Jews and African tribes. Not sure what the message was there.
Gone‘s acoustic strumming prompts much holding aloft of lighters and glowsticks -£6 to you folks. Don’t Cry For Me Argentina provides an instrumental interlude before Madders emerges David Copperfield-like from the floor in a magic box for What It Feels Like For A Girl, sung in Spanish. Might have worked in Barcelona love, but the gesture is lost your on your adopted hometown audience.
The Latin, gypsy campfire performance of La Isla Bonita whips the crowd into a castanet-clapping frenzy. But it’s the parting shots of Holiday – updated with rap and Seventies funk, the backdrop flashing pictures of Madonna in all her guises – and the right old knees-up of Music which really bring the house down.
Gold glitter falls from the heavens, the Close Encounters light show sinks slowly back to the floor and it’s all over. Far, far too soon. Like a fireworks display, tonight was an incredible, though curiously, emotionally unengaging spectacle. A stunning, superb show from an albeit distant star. And if tonight was this good, we can only imagine what a greatest hits set would be like…