Yup, We Once Reviewed a Madonna Concert

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Madonna at TD Garden (All photos: Roza Yarchun; used with permission)

“Nobody f**ks with the queen,” said the Queen at TD Garden in Boston on September 26, 2015. Madonna wasn’t being confrontational, not really. It was shtick. She was finishing up “Heartbreak City” and had just dramatically pushed her male dancer/sparring partner off a platform atop a spiral staircase, out on the arena’s spade-shaped smaller stage. (We presume he had a soft landing about 20 feet down.} “That’s what happens,” Madonna mock-snarled to the spurned lover.

Hey, bitch, she’s Madonna.

It was all fun and games, of course, showbiz bravado. No one got hurt and no one in the packed house would dare challenge her pop star hegemony.

Those fun and games went from G-rated to R-rated. She remains a provocateur, but also a comforter. At one end of the spectrum: Some mock copulation (“S.E.X.,” with four couples miming the act on four beds on a slanted stage) and dominance & submission (“Living for Love,” with minotaur dancers).

Watch her perform “Living For Love” at the 2015 Grammy Awards

On the other end: A sweet, strong-voiced, unadorned – Madonna on ukulele – rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose.” That was dedicated to her 10-year-old son, David, whose birthday it was. Red-jacketed, he popped up to dance with her and then shyly accepted a toy and a banana gift from Mom late in the show, before “Unapologetic Bitch.” (That’s my mom, an unapologetic bitch!)

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The night began with some video razzmatazz on the big screen behind the stage, and then Roman centurion-type – or maybe Wizard of Oz? – guards stalked the stage which jutted from the front to the rear of the arena floor – bulging with a circular stage at center – and ended in that spade shaped stage near the end. Rhythmically, they banged their tall, slender crosses, as the band electro-clashed and Madonna was lowered from the ceiling in a steel cage. (Game of Thrones, anyone?) The song was “Iconic,” followed by “Bitch I’m Madonna,” two boastful numbers that restated her claim – at 57, taut, fit, gorgeous, never seemingly out of breath – to pop royalty in the face of all the Katys and Mileys and Gagas of the world. In case you were wondering…. There’s her 12 #1 hits, the pioneering of the early MTV era to superstardom, and the strongly-stated notion in concert in 2015 that the sun has not yet set on our by now dear Madge. And if you can get past any rockist tendencies to dismiss her, it’s almost impossible to not be entertained by an arena show galore.

The crosses we saw early on foreshadowed one of Madonna’s main themes: pokes at the Catholic faith, from which she’s forever been rebelling. That took shape most provocatively in “Holy Water” (with Madonna joining sexy bare-midriff, pole-dancing nuns) and lyrics that celebrated oral sex and, perhaps, a different kind of holy water. The song segued into “Vogue” – the name-dropping (Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, Bette Davis etc.) continues to bring a smile – and back out again, ending with Madonna on stage tied up on a long Last Supper by Da Vinci-style table.

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It was all designed to entice and enthrall – what the hell is she doing now? what is she going to do next? – and somewhere further down on the list is making you think deeply. There’s still an emotional weightlessness about much of what Madonna sings and plays. It comes off a catchy, tarted-up dance-pop, mostly – and, yet, it was a grand, thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. And really that’s what Madonna’s about in concert: semi-naughty fun and games and spot-on choreography. She joked (or not) that the real show was beneath and behind the stage – all the machinations, costume changes and bells and whistles that make a Madonna show less a concert per se than a multimedia explosion. A whirlwind of in-your-face.

At the close of “Body Shop” – set on a stage now dressed up as a ‘50s auto body shop – she said, “If it’s got tits or tires, it’s gonna give you trouble. And that’s why I’m here to give you a little trouble, to stir up some shit.”

It’s worth noting that Madonna, born Aug. 16, 1958, dipped deep into her catalog for reworked versions of “Like a Virgin,” “Into the Groove,” “Music” and “Burning Up” – during the latter she even strapped on an electric guitar and shredded. It’s also worth noting that the tour was called “Rebel Heart,” as is her latest album, and nine of its songs were played. The show was both about living history and living in the material world of 2015. She is still that material girl and during that song she took joy in pushing her top-hatted would-be male suitors down a slope, one by one.

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(Photo: Roza Yarchun)

This was a very physical, tightly-choreographed show. There’s 20 or so dancers, including seven male acrobats on seriously swaying high poles during one of the breaks where Madonna was offstage changing costumes. But by “break” I don’t mean let-up; they performed to “Illuminati” and Madonna surrendering the stage to them was perfectly A-OK. Call it Cirque du Madonna.

“All the smoke and mirrors, none of it matters,” she said midset, noting the overwhelming technical aspect of it all, before she shed the trappings briefly for an acoustic “Who’s That Girl.” “It comes down to here,” she said, thumping her heart. “It comes down to the song.”

Have to disagree with her in this case. If this were Madonna playing a straight-up old-school show like the Allman Brothers Band or the Ramones, this would not fly anywhere near to where it does now. She gives us a slight non-glitzy interlude, fine. Good song. Works. But, really, mostly, the songs do hang on the choreography, the flights of fancy and the wow-factor of a fully integrated music-and-dance performance.

The most annoying thing was Madonna played the old which-side-can-yell-loudest card way too often, teasing that she’d marry someone from the side that screamed loudest. As she exited, raised on a center-stage trapeze, she announced a tie. That was during “Holiday,” her only encore – and bless her for not doing the endless ersatz encore thing. She donned patriotic colors and wrapped herself in the American flag. But it wasn’t all “Go USA!” Behind her on the scrim, flags from numerous countries flashed up. One world, one party, Madonna style.

Madonna, born August 16, 1958, begins “The Celebration Tour” in December 2023. Tickets are available here and here.

Jim Sullivan

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