Madonna’s concert Sunday at San Jose’s HP Pavilion landed on the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The military tie-in seemed especially apt four songs into the show, when the star appeared onstage to perform the title track from her latest album, American Life, backed by video screens showing war footage.
This wasn’t a chronicle of France’s liberation but a darker glimpse at carnage from other, morally ambiguous conflicts: Bombs razed villages; Iraqi and Vietnamese children bled and wailed.
Through it all, a khaki-attired Madonna and a phalanx of dancers dressed as soldiers, nuns, mullahs and priests got into the groove. The crowd cheered obliviously, horrific video images notwithstanding. Note to Madge: When making an anti-war statement, dance beats, star turns and choreographed stage moves distract from the message.
Madonna has always delivered mixed messages, whether flashing pictures of the pope during a song about teen pregnancy (Papa Don’t Preach) in her ’80s heyday or going on a vigilante vengeance spree in the video for her latter-day single What It Feels Like for a Girl. She makes her statements and lets fans interpret them as they will. That’s the essence of her two-decade stardom — at her best, she manages to be all things to all people.
Her Re-Invention tour incorporates this melange of personae into a two- hour show that plays like Cliff’s Notes to her career, with each new Madonna morphing into the next in a hypnotic jigsaw of sex, lies and videotape. At the first of her three San Jose concerts (there are still floor tickets available for the shows tonight and Wednesday), Madonna was alternately stunning, perplexing and absurd. Most important, she was always entertaining.
The concert highlighted the way in which spiritual iconography has replaced the star’s ’90s sexploitation, from kabbalah text swirling along to Like a Prayer to screens filled with Catholic religious art during Mother and Father. The night started with a biblical recitation, as Madonna’s video image fractured from Whore of Babylon splendor to minimal asceticism. The singer then switched moods, rising from the stage in a glittering bustier and hot pants to recite Vogue against a museum backdrop filled with — what else — a series of shifting Madonna portraits. This was the night’s first production number, with dancers strutting in 18th century garb while a backup band and two singers held down the musical front.
As this is a “reinvention” tour, Madonna has found various ways to retool her repertoire. Some of the best interpretations were those in which Maddie dispensed with lavish theatrics to play artist: Frozen and Like a Prayer were pared down to musical numbers built around Madonna and her band; Burning Up and Material Girl became singer-songwriter spotlights as Madonna showed off her competent guitar skills.
The larger ensemble songs were hit and miss. Express Yourself, another military-themed presentation ostensibly meant to celebrate individuality over indoctrination, shot itself in the foot when Madonna crooned, “What you need is a big, strong hand/ To lift you to your higher ground” while being elevated on the back of a rifle.
But a DJ breakdown of Music captured a certain club-land euphoria, and the night’s final song, a remix of Holiday, was a confetti-strewn tribal love dance that fittingly ended the night at the point where Madonna’s career began.
For the night’s greatest-hits segment, Madonna changed into a kilt and a “Kabbalists Do It Better” T-shirt and joined a bagpiper (yes, a bagpiper; don’t laugh, it worked) to cut loose with Papa Don’t Preach and Get Into the Groove (featuring a video cameo by Missy Elliott). A schmaltzy Crazy for You followed, dedicated to “all my fans in the Bay Area who have stuck with me for the last 20 years.”
Just because something’s saccharine doesn’t mean its sweetness is insincere — and one of the tour’s most discussed and vilified moments, a cover of John Lennon’s Imagine, smacked of verisimilitude.
When Madonna announced the song by saying, “I didn’t write this next song, but I wish I had, and I hope someday it becomes a reality,” she sounded as close to bald honesty as a consummate gadfly can.
And here’s the punch line: As a treacly international montage of children flickered across the overhead screens and Madonna ran through Lennon’s well- worn paean to peace, the audience finally seemed to get it. No whoops greeted the sight of battered war kids; instead, lighters rose and the crowd sang along. Madonna, it seems, still knows how to work a cultural wave.
Source: Chronicle Pop Music Critic, Neva Chonin