Madonna: The Dancing Queen
June 14-19, 2006, Chicago, United Center
Twenty-two years ago both Madonna and Bruce Springsteen unleashed their most commercially successful albums-"Like A Virgin" and "Born In The USA" -to combined sales of over twenty-five million records and that's just in the US. Recently, I found myself catching both of these acts on back-to-back nights, on tours which are largely developed around their most recent releases. Surprisingly, both of these tours were far more provocative and whimsical than either artist's $100 million grossing tours of 2003 and 2004. Springsteen's stadium tour of 2003 was hefty on ego, hits and his most recent album "The Rising". Currently Springsteen has streamlined his show to smaller audiences focusing on songs by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger and with no major hits in the set. The E Street Band is at home and instead he's supported by a seventeen-piece band. Amazingly, they were able to divinely radiate a stronger feeling of community and collaboration between band and audience. From the first chord played until the final bow, the band and the fans played off one another giving the audience an exhilarating feeling of unity.
While Springsteen always tends to exceed my expectations, I must say I did not expect much from Madonna as her 2004 "Reinvention" tour left me cold. It was my first time seeing the Material Girl in the flesh, although I've followed every tour closely and caught them all on DVD. Even though the show focused largely on her hits, it was surprisingly tedious. At the time, I was happy to have seen her perform an over the top show featuring some of the most recognizable prime pop hits of the last twenty years, but I left feeling she did not enjoy herself one bit. It did not help I had recently seen Prince perform a few of the most potent live performances I had ever witnessed. Prince's concerts were small on theatrics and big on song and soul. Due to Madonna's complete detachment from her audience on the last tour, I had low expectations for the "Confessions" tour.
I'll work and I'll fight til I find a place of my own
Madonna's latest album, "Confessions On A Dance Floor" is a vast improvement over 2003's "American Life" however, it did not grasp me the same way her best work has. In the annals of her recorded history, I'd rank "Confessions" somewhere in the middle of her output; better than "Erotica", "American Life" and "Bedtime Stories" but not as good as "Ray of Light", "Music" or "Like A Prayer". I never imagined a dance heavy electronic album was possibly meant to be experienced live.
Despite my reservations, I was at the United Center ready to be unimpressed when the lights dimmed at 8:30 on the dot. The stage set up was enormous with two gigantic video screens on stage and three extensive catwalks (two on the sides and one down the middle of the arena). Numerous female dancers appeared with men on leashes, giving the opening a very S&M feel. As the giant disco ball descended from the ceiling and opened, Madonna was there in all her glory kicking into the opener "Future Lovers" which set the buzzing dance tone of the evening. Once the masochistic opening came to a close, new songs "Get Together", "Jump" and "Forbidden Love" with their swaggering beats transfixed the audience, who would remain on their feet the entire evening. In the first thirty-minutes of the show, Madonna proved herself to be dazzling with a supercharged set of songs and visuals that I doubt anyone can top. From a staging perspective, the last time I witnessed an orgy of this many visuals was on U2's Zoo TV tour from 1992. For the first time, I found myself sucked in by the provocative and seductive visuals she tied to her music.
While Madonna had some stellar sets on the last tour, these were more fan-friendly. The catwalks were put to great use, offering those with seats half way back on the floor the most optimal view of the stage. The first hit of the evening was a reworked dance version of "Like A Virgin" where Madonna strode to the left side of the stage to ride a leather chair (merry go round style) while balancing herself against it for the duration of the song. While her classic material was only performed as a way to enhance the current, she pulled no punches in ensuring it left her audience speechless. "Live To Tell" was the evening's most scandalous moment, as she appeared on a cross--with a crown of thorns no less. While it may have been appalling to some in the audience (this is Madonna after all), the performance was hindered by poor sound throughout the arena where her vocals could barely be heard. Those who were able to see past the Christ-like imagery, were probably equally discomforted with images of deprived and sick children of Africa. This was not the first time I felt irony at a Madonna show. She had a similar series of images while performing "Imagine" in 2004. I had an issue with these images a few years back because of the amount of money she charges for tickets. I respect Madonna and feel she's a first-rate performer, but I do take issue with a performer charging upwards of $400 for ticket and then attempting to manipulate her audience with these images. However, one may view Madonna as a woman who is maturing and growing. My two cents, regardless of her idiosyncrasies and shock factor-she is a human being at her core and one whom I feel is growing not only as a human but as a mother of two. This is merely her way of wanting her audience to be aware of the outside world and grow with her.
Only two songs from the entire performance fell flat; "Isaac" and the reworked "Paradise" from 2000's "Music". Both were fine, but were also the only two moments where the crowd was not in an incendiary state. These two songs are easily overlooked as the remainder of the show was defiant and intrinsic. "Confessions" second single "Sorry" soared and the audience reached a new peak as the dance number completely prevailed as if it was "Vogue". Taking off its video dance war of women versus men, the song was so audaciously effective I could not image Madonna ever performing another concert without this song in the set. The frenzy of the evening spilled over into the audience as each song presented itself as an all out tour de force dance party. I saw Cher a few years back on her farewell tour and for what it was, a first rate Vegas styled show, she gave the audience their money's worth. However, while Madonna's tickets were far more expensive, she exceeded my expectations in every way imaginable in both song and staging.
"I Love New York" was one of the few songs performed in a straightforward manner, showcasing Madonna performing electric guitar in obscene heels. Even though the chorus heralded a city that Chicago continually feels in competition with, it somehow worked. Without missing a beat and keeping the six string on her back, the band launched into "Ray of Light" entrancing the crowd in the process, proving she does not need a fleet of dancers and theatrics to win over a crowd. As the song worked its way to a close, Madonna jumped up and down in her enormous heels with her Les Paul strapped around her while the sold-out crowd simultaneously mimicked her and shook the foundations of the arena. Madonna slowed things down afterward and modestly showed off her vocals on "Substitute For Love", performing the song from the steps of the catwalk. While it was the immense production numbers that most will remember, never underestimate Madonna's ability to still entrance an audience with the sheer power of a restrained vocal performance, which is exactly what she did here. While the "Confessions" tour is arguably her best tour since the "Blonde Ambition" trek in 1990, seeing this series of songs makes me long for a tour where Madonna leaves all of the theatrics and props at home and focuses solely on the music. The highlight of the 2004 "Reinvention" tour was when it was just the five musicians on stage performing "Burning Up" from her debut album. I believe her best concert performances are in front of her, when she leaves the theatrics and toys at home and hits the road with a five piece band varying set lists night to night ensuring no two shows are alike. Next to Elvis Presley, no other artist has had as many hit singles and from a female perspective, she's untouchable. While I believe this would be her best move from an artistic and financial standpoint, I can't complain as the dizzying performances of this current tour will be hard to match.
The remainder of the evening was a delirious and frenzied dance assault. While the sounds of "Disco Inferno" blasted throughout, her dancers rolled across the stage and catwalk on roller skates until Madonna appeared back on stage in an all white suit as she surged into "Music". With a completely reworked dance beat to the rhythms of "Disco Inferno", "Music" was reinvented in a way no one ever could have imagined. Just as I had witnessed with Springsteen the night before, Madonna was continually taking chances with the musical scope of her material and whether she succeeded or failed, one has to admire her desire and need to not live in the past but in the present and the future.
In my heart, I will always be a rock n' roller and will always like pop music from a distance. While I find many pop songs catchy, I prefer the attitude and aggression of rock, especially when it comes to blistering live performances. Nothing can capture the energy of a band and crowd completely in synch with one another, except for maybe this Madonna tour. As I watched Madonna strip off the white suit into more skin tight work out clothes and run through more rhythmic versions of "Erotica" and "La Isla Bonita", I couldn't help but notice the unifying feeling this music brought to the crowd. The audience followed Madonna with every dance beat, skip and jump throughout the entire two-hour show. Two years ago, I felt disengaged from Madonna whereas Prince engaged me, but tonight Madonna caught up with the Purple Prince of pop. Instead of a soulless spectacular based on ego and enterprise, the "Confessions" tour is a unified marriage of theatrics and music bringing a communal experience of elation and elevation to the fans.
As the evening was drawing to a close, the beat from "Hung Up", the first track and single from "Confessions On A Dance Floor", began to repeat itself throughout the arena, but not before bits of "Lucky Star" overlapped. Her dancers graced her with a cape, which had the appropriate title of "Dancing Queen" as Madonna and her backing singers swirled around the stage in an ecstatic euphoric state that was contagious. "Lucky Star" was only a tease as it merely played as an interlude to an awe-inspiring finale. As the music segued into "Hung Up", Madonna headed off stage while two dancers leaped from trap doors in the stage, plowed down the extended catwalk and then ascended simultaneously into the crowd. As if this were not enough, they ran to the back of the arena and began to scale the walls to the second level (there are three levels not including the floor in the United Center). When a DVD is released of this show and people see this, they will wonder if it is as awe-inspiring in person as it appears on film, all I can say is "yes", it is.
After the dancers' incredible performance, a mini dance rig appeared front and center with Madonna in her leotard (made infamous from the "Hung Up" video) accentuated by glitzy boots. Before I get any emails asking me the obvious, yes, she shook her ass just like she did in the video and "yes", its looks even better in person. It was as if the entire evening was building up to this moment as "Hung Up" completely seduced the crowd with its dance grooves and Madonna showed off her inner exhibitionist. The rhythmic assault of "Hung Up" proved to be the defining moment of the evening, which is ironic because while it's usually great to see an artist play new material, it's rare for it to steal the show, but "Hung Up" and "Sorry" did just that. Upon its release, I saw "Confessions On A Dance Floor" as a worthy album to Madonna's cannon, but it's magnified ten-fold by its stage show. This is a stunning feat for a pop artist as it's rare a live concert, which usually focuses more on theatrics rather than music, will make you go back to the studio record and look upon it with an entirely different perspective. This tour puts "Confessions on the Dance Floor" into context. It gives the album meaning and should send reviewers back to their original reviews to be reworked. I no longer see it as a mid-grade Madonna album, but an album in the upper echelon of her work.
Over two nights in June of 2006, I saw Bruce Springsteen and Madonna completely reinvent themselves and their music. Neither of their most recent studio albums grabbed me initially (even though I admired both of them). Little did I realize that it would be live and in concert where the sweat pours out of your pores, where each artist unleashed their latest material not only putting it into perspective but giving it a life force. Madonna's tour de force cabaret was superbly unsubtle and fixating. While I'm normally not a fan of extravaganzas this tour is about reinvention and rededication. Vegas spectacular or not, this tour may not only rank as one of the year's highest grossing, but arguably one of its best as well.
There's only so much you can learn in one place
The more that you wait, the more time that you waste
Madonna Concert Attendance in Chicago: 52,000 / 52,000; Revenue: $9,271,790