Hours before Madonna launched her Sticky & Sweet world tour in Cardiff last night, the phenomenal pulling power of history’s biggest female pop star was evident for miles around. Heavy traffic tailbacks clogged main roads into the city, while a carnival atmosphere prevailed near the venue, where stallholders enjoyed a brisk trade in pink furry cowboy hats and feather boas. I am still wearing mine.
Never mind that the Millennium Stadium was only two-thirds full, or that tout tickets were changing hands nearby for half the original £90 asking price. And never mind that the diva kept us waiting so long (she was more than an hour late) that the excitable crowd eventually began to boo loudly. Yet when she finally arrived, her amazingly taut 50-year-old body wrapped in skimpy burlesque gear and shiny top hat, the sheer totalitarian spectacle silenced all doubters.
The two-hour show was divided into four chapters: Pimp, Old School, Gypsy and Rave. As ever with Madonna, dazzling theatrical touches abounded. Most were achieved using brilliantly programmed, billboard-sized, mobile video screens that allowed her to duet with Britney, Kanye and Pharrell – and to dance with no fewer than three virtual Justin Timberlakes. Early in the set, a vintage car materialised during the deluxe disco anthem Beat Goes On, gliding up and down a catwalk protruding into the audience. Fantastic.
Later, during Spanish Lesson, Maddy’s dance troupe appeared as hooded monks, eventually shedding their robes to reveal brightly hued matador outfits. This jumble of costume changes and disconnected images was often confusing: one minute we were watching a slightly scaled-down version of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, the next a stage musical of The Da Vinci Code.
Maddy’s latest album, Hard Cand“, accounted for nine out of the 22 numbers played. It is a decent record, well received both critically and commercially, but it takes a hefty dose of misplaced self-belief to favour bland filler such as Heartbeat or She’s Not Me over Like a Virgin, Material Girl, Justify My Love, Cherish or half a dozen more niggling omissions.
Throughout the show, Madonna self-consciously referenced the 1980s Manhattan which shaped her early career. There were robotic dancers in glittery crash helmets – Daft Punk meets Damien Hirst – plus chunky hip-hop beats and computer-game graphics galore. Into the Groove and Music came backed by animated Keith Haring artwork and a superbly realised, graffiti-splattered New York subway train. Meanwhile, Maddy and her team sported Day-Glo legwarmers and performed synchronised skipping-rope dance routines. Highly impressive, in a “Kids from Fame” kind of way.
The boldest digression of the evening was the Gypsy section, a full-blooded campfire singalong affair. For La Isla Bonita and You Must Love Me, the latter taken from the musical Evita, Madonna gathered a band of fiery acoustic players around her, led by Alexander Kolpakov, director of the Russian folk music and dance ensemble Via Romen. Clearly her recent fascination with the gypsy-punks Gogol Bordello has left its mark.
Of course, this kind of musical tourism could easily be dismissed as tacky tokenism, a cheap holiday in someone else’s mystery. But in reality it was audacious, surprising and rather splendid. Madonna should consider an entire tour or album featuring gypsy-folk arrangements of her greatest hits.
Less convincing were the grating interludes in which she strapped on a guitar to play mildly raucous, ersatz garage-rock versions of classic singles, including Borderline and Hung Up. Oh dear. Not that revved-up riffs should be the sole preserve of male rockers, but Madonna’s flirtation with power chords and feedback had all the plastic-punk conviction of Mel C or Kelly Osbourne.
Equally disappointing was the lack of vintage Maddy scandal. There were no mock crucifixions, no simulated lesbian orgies, almost no gratuitous swear words. Instead, we were treated to earnest but meaningless video montages of Al Gore, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and – inevitably – Barack Obama. Woolly sentiments prevailed. No religious groups were offended in the making of this show.
Closing with an oddly anticlimactic Give It 2 Me, Sticky & Sweet is an archetypal 21st-century Madonna tour: hugely impressive, technically slick, musically uneven, and slightly soulless. Compared to other recent mega-shows in comparable venues, such as those by Prince or Leonard Cohen, it lacks warmth and wit. But in the premier league of sense-battering, unit-shifting, song-and-dance spectaculars, the robot queen of pop remains unrivalled and undefeated.