Is there such a thing as a bad Madonna show?
A friend asked me that question a couple days ago. He wasn’t sucking up to Madge, the 50-year-old Queen of Pop, rather he was pointing out the obvious. Madonna is Madonna, and her well-documented past defines her as much as any live performance.
As a lifelong follower of Madonna, I can tell you there is such a thing as an off night for the diva. But her Tuesday-night bash, at the Pepsi Center wasn’t one of them. Madonna was dynamic and effervescent on Tuesday, playing to the capacity crowd with every trick in her long and playful book. She’ll repeat her performance tonight at the Pepsi Center.
Madonna can start the night (90 minutes late) with two lackluster songs — Candy Shop and Beat Goes On — and move onto a set that is as risky as it is expected. With an artist of Madonna’s years of experience, the success of a big show comes down to one simple element: The setlist.
It’s that simple. How many fans at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday were waiting to hear Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You, a B-side from the new Hard Candy? Not many – as was obvious when the arena quieted during the unremarkable track. How many were wondering – out loud to their friends – if she would play Human Nature or La Isla Bonita? A lot.
Seriously. The arena was packed with thirty- and fortysomething ladies reliving their youths. Some were dressed up, veil and all, like Madonna circa her Like a Virgin days. Others simply bopped about like excited teenagers, gossiping about the Vegas setlist and the Britney rumors and the elaborate costume changes.
The show was obviously scripted to the very last step. But that’s not to say it was all the expected.
A late-set La Isla Bonita was thrown into a upbeat, cumbia-gypsy haze, and the hyper-Latin approach worked wonders for a great, but aged, song. Human Nature is Madonna’s sexy entry into the dark and moody world of trip-hop, but her current performance of the track posits it as a slow, angry rocker.
“La Isla Bonita” was the show’s brightest, boldest, most daring moment — a triumph of reinvention, like Madonna herself. “Human Nature” was a low-point — a brave attempt at trying something new, but a low point regardless.
“Borderline” was a success story. With Madonna and her electric guitar, the song was gallantly transformed into an arena anthem from the 1980s – not all that unlike a great Journey song. Sounds weird? It was. And it was great.
At other times, Madonna kept with tried and true formulas. Get Into the Groove was a delightful explosion of color. No experimentation here, just pure pop goodness — set against the backdrop of bright Keith Haring animation.
Music was a buoyant and throbbing gay disco — the American arena equivalent to Berlin’s Love Parade. Her courageous, late-set take on You Must Love Me — from the filmed version of the Broadway musical Evita — was spot-on and gorgeous with its string accompaniment.
It was also a needed opportunity to hear Madonna’s actual voice. Madge let her back-up singers work a lot of the heavy lifting — hit choruses and the like — but with You Must Love Me, it was only her and the strings. And her voice sounded solid — a strong tip of the hat that we have many more years of her music ahead of us.
The above review ran in The Denver Post on Wednesday Nov. 12, 2008. It was filed a few songs before Madonna’s show was finished, because of deadline reasons. Here are some further thoughts the author had on the show after watching the rest from his seat.
I filed my review (above) for The Post with about four songs left in the night. Part of the danger of reviewing shows overnight — with the early deadlines most newspapers face — is missing something at the end. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. At Madonna, I was kicking myself during Like A Prayer and Ray of Light and Hung Up.
They’re all great songs, and the production was expectedly great. (Although I will note that the video screens and the back-up dancers outmatched the show’s costumes consistently. Some readers complained that, for a Madonna show, the costumes were oddly low-key. And I agree. See the 30-plus comments on the original review here.) But something was flat about the performance of those hits.
And it was Madonna. Madonna was flat for the entire last four songs of the show — especially Ray of Light. Granted, she’s not a great singer — save for her Evita phase, which was the peak of her enrollment in vocal coaching classes. Madonna has always sounded like Madonna, and even though she’s not a great singer, we love her voice for what it is.
But I’ve never heard her this flat. Throughout Ray of Light and Hung Up, she was singing juuuuust below the intended note, and she was actually relying on her back-up singers to correct her — like ProTools humanoids, tuning up her incorrect pitch. And it was unfortunately noticeable, at least for those of us who hadn’t already OD’d on overpriced arena cocktails.
There was a bold, late-set moment that didn’t make the review. Before packing up and returning her hotel, she asked a fan in the front row what song she wanted to hear. Of course she answered, Like a Virgin. (That’s likely the answer 95 percent of the time.) And then Madge said that she’d sing the song, a cappella, with the help of the capacity crowd. Sure enough, she sang a verse, and then the crowd, then her, then the crowd. It was a brave experiment to carry out in front of 17,000 people. And it was a surprisingly fun and unexpected moment.