After a slew of very late appearances in Brooklyn, the pop superstar was only a little late for her Philly date.
‘Round about midnight during Madonna’s Celebration Tour at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, a video montage flashed highlights of her long and illustrious career.
Emphasis was on outrage elicited and headlines generated by the sexually frank and provocative performances that made the superstar infamous — and massively popular — as she reshaped pop music in the 1980s.
But the point of the interlude — and the crux of the show’s career-spanning, jam-packed-with-hits message — was pointedly made at the end of the clip.
“Aging is a sin,” Madonna declared. “I think the most controversial thing I’ve ever done is stick around.”
And stick around she has, reaching back to her early “Material Girl” years when she built on David Bowie’s shape-shifting model of constant image reinvention, and then, designing the instruction manual brand-name pop stars follow in bringing underground dance music cultures into the mainstream.
It was no accident that Beyoncé’s “Queens Remix” of her 2022 Break My Soul hit was built on the foundation of Madonna’s 1990 Vogue. That ballroom-celebrating hit was a centerpiece of Thursday’s concert, serving as a showcase for Madonna’s team of dancers, including her 11-year-old daughter, Estere.
Madonna as pioneer who continued to survive and thrive — despite the haters, then and now — was the theme that underscored the evening.
She was introduced by Ru Paul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen, who initially appeared dressed as Marie Antoinette and proclaimed that he knew he was in Philadelphia because “I can smell the cream cheese in the air.” (Kudos to him and Madonna for not making a single cheese steak reference all evening. Wawa did get a brief mention, however.)
More than once, Bob referred to the star of the show as “the icon, the innovator.” And the idea that she’s still going strong — after a health scare last year when she was hospitalized with an infection and had to delay the start of the tour — was emphasized throughout.
The show began with Nothing Really Matters, a about the primacy of maternal love, from her 1998 album Ray of Light, performed while crowned with a golden halo. She then jumped to the mid-1980s with Everybody and Into the Groove — disco-derived songs that put a pep in the step of a not-quite-sold-out crowd that was largely in the 65-year-old star’s age cohort.
Then she moved to an area of the expansive stage in the center of the arena. She had a brace on her left knee, which she wore early on and late, but discarded in the middle of the show. “I’ve still got it, right?,” she asked the crowd.
It wasn’t really a question, but more of a statement of pride which would largely be born out over the course of the two-hour show, plotted as a musical autobiography of sorts, full of “good stories, bad stories, sad stories, and hopefully, some sexy stories.”
And all of them, of course, were late-night stories — including Bedtime Story, a highlight toward the end of the show.
The Celebration Tour made headlines when a show last month in Brooklyn led to two fans filing a lawsuit because it didn’t start till close to 11. This week, Madonna and promoter Live Nation said they would “defend this case vigorously.”
On Thursday, the Wells Fargo Center sent out an early evening message on social media warning that the show, which was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., would start late “due to the current weather conditions.” It was over 50 degrees and not raining at the time.
So in that context, her arrival on stage at 10:06 p.m. didn’t seem all that outrageous. Her audience knew what they were in for. When in her presence, one lives on Madonna time.
The show largely proceeded chronologically, with some exceptions, such as the aerobic burner Hung Up, from 2005′s Confessions on the Dance Floor, immediately following 1985′s Justify My Love, with which it meshed effortlessly.
Madonna has a lot of great songs, and also a lot of ideas, that can sometimes come across as heavy-handed hodgepodge. The flamenco-flavored La Isla Bonita, which featured her son David on guitar, was a charmer, but it segued into a stilted Don’t Cry for Me Argentina which was, for some reason, performed with the star standing on the stage alongside photos of Bowie and Nina Simone, and then Marlon Brando and James Baldwin.
The show’s family affair vibe was furthered when Madonna’s daughter Mercy James accompanied her mother on piano during Bad Girl. The 1992 ballad, a self-destructive confession, came across with emotional clarity and was oddly staged with the singer in a red slip on top of the piano, seemingly in reference to Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys.
The show was celebratory by definition but also a serious affair that left some big hits off the set list. Material Girl was omitted and Like a Virgin only included in a prerecorded version, mashed up with Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean in a nostalgic costume change interlude.
The most powerfully effective segment came with Live to Tell, from 1986′s True Blue. It was the centerpiece of an in-memoriam segment that honored people who died during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Black-and-white photos of those that were lost — Keith Haring, Arthur Ashe, Rock Hudson, and others not so well-known — shown on video screens as Madonna moved above the crowd on a mini-stage. It was staged with dignity and grace.
Also, effective was a version of Express Yourself, performed on acoustic guitar in a cowgirl outfit, and sung as a missive to her children, urging them to boldly take on the world with the same verve their mother has. The crowd sang along with gusto.
The theme of perseverance — and the showbiz spirit that the show must, and will, always go on — was stressed in Die Another Day, Madonna’s James Bond movie song and in Don’t Tell Me, from 2000′s Music, in which she makes it clear she never intends to end the lifelong performance project of being Madonna.
The show ended somewhat anti-climactically. Ray Of Light, from the 1998 album of the same name, was fantastic, with the star in a silver jumpsuit and black sunglasses that made it seem like lasers were shooting out of her eyes.
But the big finale was built around Bitch I’m Madonna, the 2015 hit with Nicki Minaj coproduced by former Philadelphian mixmaster Diplo.
Dancers were costumed as different Madonnas through the various stages of her career, including Estere outfitted as a baseball player inspired by the 1992 movie A League of Her Own.
It was cleverly conceived, and it stated an incontrovertible truth. But it didn’t really work as a show closer because the song is lacking in comparison to the choicer material that all those Madonna iterations created throughout the one-of-a-kind career that had been celebrated over the previous two hours.
Here’s the set list for Madonna’s Celebration Tour at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Jan. 25, 2024.
“Nothing Really Matters”
“Into the Groove”
“Open Your Heart”
“Live to Tell”
“Like a Prayer”
“Justify My Love”
“Crazy for You”
“Die Another Day”
“Don’t Tell Me”
“Mother and Father”
“La Isla Bonita”
“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”
“Ray of Light”
“Bitch I’m Madonna”