The "Queen of Pop" Madonna has delivered the best concert by a female artist in 2019 during her residency at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in New York.
This show was a part of her 2019 Madame X Tour, and it was spectacular. What made it even more compelling was that the venue had a no cell phone policy, which allowed everybody to live in the moment.
Her concert was a neat blend of songs from her latest studio offering, Madame X, coupled with her smash hits such as "Express Yourself," "Vogue," "Papa Don't Preach," "American Life," and "La Isla Bonita." It is evident that her music is still very much relevant in today's music scene as she has served as a musical influence for countless artists that followed her precedent and ambition.
Equally brilliant were her classics "Frozen" and "Like a Prayer." She proves that she has one of the most honey-rich, versatile voices in music history. It is no wonder that she is the best-selling female artist of all time.
Fan Russell Joseph, who attended her show at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, said it best: "The 'Madame X' Tour feels like you're are a voyeur into Madonna's private life."
Joseph noted that the concert was "part theater spectacle, part intimate nightclub, part tour of the world through music soundscapes." "The woman is a true artist," he underscored.
Overall, Madonna put on the greatest live show by a female artist in 2019, and this year she did at the intimate BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn. She was worth every penny of the pricey ticket because she was able to transport her fans and listeners to different realms. Madonna is one true song stylist, visionary, and an excellent all-around performer. The "Madame X" production was superb from start to finish, and one will leave drenched in a wide spectrum of raw emotions. The pop throne still belongs to her.
It's a Monday night and about an hour before I am ready to leave to go see the final night of Madonna's takeover of the Wiltern for her "Madame X" show I get a text from her publicity firm telling me the show is running late due to technical issues and not to arrive at the venue until 11.
Of course the late starts have become a very public issue for an otherwise very private show, where no phones are allowed and you are transported into her incredibly elaborate and unique world. Someone even attempted to sue her for the late starts.
She addressed that during a speech on the theme of the show, "Artists are here to disturb the peace," quoted from, as she put it, "The great James Baldwin." In the speech, as she talks with the audience about fighting for freedom she warns them you won't always be popular, you won't always have the most Instagram followers and you won't always be on time because being a freedom fighter takes time.
"Madame X" is Madonna at her best, unapologetic, uncompromising, unyielding and in complete control. She isn't going to apologize for not finishing until 1:30 on a Monday night. And hell I saw Prince many times where he didn't even take the stage until two. Rock stars, or in the case of Prince and Madonna, pop stars with rock star swagger, adhere to their own rules. And that's what makes them special and why we love them. It is the attitude and their ability to express and do the things we wish we could but often aren't allowed to.
Madonna can start a show after 11 on a Monday. For most people you can't just say, "F**k it," as she does in the show, "I'll start work when I want." This said if you are going to keep people out until two on a Monday night you better have the show to back it up.
"Madame X" is a revelation. It is, in its own way, as revolutionary in live performing as Vegas residencies were when everyone like Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and others started doing those years ago. "Madame X" feels like a play thanks in large part to the incredible projections that act as another character. It is performance art, and brilliant performance art with a message.
The show, as has been documented, starts with the aforementioned Baldwin quote being typed onto the screen as two silhouettes looking like 1940s film noir characters act out a noir sequence.
It is hard to properly do justice to the immersive nature of the show. In much the same way there are those big blockbusters that have to be seen on the big screen, "Madame X" needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Madonna has, not surprisingly, because she is a marketing mastermind, done the show a tremendous service by banning phones. It's not a piecemeal work.
Sure there are a ton of Instagrammable moments, but as compelling as the individual moments such as "Like A Prayer," "Vogue," "Papa Don't Preach" and "Medellin," with Maluma projected onto the screen larger than life so it feels like he is there, are, it would be a disservice to see them in their 30-second snippets.
In great complete works of art, which "Madame X" is, there are of course highlights, like the ones I mentioned above, particularly "Like A Prayer," which is stunning. But you likely don't watch one episode of Stranger Things or one scene from a movie, read one chapter in The Great Gatsby or when the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came out people didn't just listen to "A Day In The Life." You listened from start to finish.
In "Madame X" Madonna takes you through an arc, so as much it is a joy to hear songs you know like "Express Yourself" songs such as "Frozen" and the powerful encore of "I Rise" are just as important moments in delivering the message of the show. And in her uncompromising manner she has a lot to say, from the speech she delivers on reproductive rights and the nine states trying to overturn Roe V. Wade in "Papa Don't Preach" to the videos of activists in "I Rise," Madonna backs up her thesis, "Artists are here to disturb the peace."
As she says, it's not always going to make her most popular. But Madonna has been the most popular. And as great as she was, at times as that, Madonna as an outspoken artist pushing herself and the live form is way more compelling, fascinating and ultimately rewarding.
Madonna has described the title character of her latest album, "Madame X," as a secret agent traveling the globe in disguise. Yet there was no concealing the singer's hard-wired superstar nature Wednesday night as she brought her new tour to the Wiltern — as small a room as she's likely played in decades, if not one free of unwanted noise.
"I know you love me, but can you be quiet?" she scolded a fan who'd dared to interrupt her at one point. "I'm in the middle of a story here."
After countless concerts in stadiums and arenas, Madonna, 61, designed her new show for theaters where she can park the production for extended engagements. Wednesday's gig was the first of 10 at the Wiltern, which seats about 1,800, through Nov. 25.
It's a chance, she says, for a more intimate artistic experience (though in truth Madonna has never had trouble making an arena feel cozy). But the gambit also allows her to escape unflattering comparisons — well, some of them — to the younger pop stars who now can do more nights than she can at Staples Center or the Rose Bowl.
For Madonna, intimate doesn't necessarily mean focused. Like the "Madame X" album, which mingles half-formed thoughts on sex, religion, family, violence, technology and the mutable concept of home, the opening Wiltern concert was a bit of a mess. Not in terms of logistics — it started more or less on time around 11 p.m. and ended at 1:30 a.m. or so — but as far as the story she was trying to tell.
The heart of the show had to do with her life in Lisbon, where she moved in 2017 to support her son David's interest in soccer. The relocation wasn't easy, she said; she was lonely for months until she began going out to the city's clubs to listen to Portugal's dramatic fado singers and to music from that country's former island colony of Cape Verde, off the northwest coast of Africa.
Onstage here, in a detailed replica of one of those clubs, she sang songs clearly inspired by her surroundings — including the fado-style "Killers Who Are Partying" and "Batuka," for which she was backed by more than a dozen vocalists thwacking out a Cape Verdean beat on hand drums held between their thighs. There was also a rendition of "Sodade," well known to fans of the late Cesária Évora, and a retooled "La Isla Bonita." (None of this was captured on camera; Madonna banned photography Wednesday, including by the media, and required fans to place their phones in locked pouches.)
You wouldn't say her singing was doing anything to improve on what had moved her back in Lisbon. But you could sense the depth of Madonna's connection to the place, and you had to admire her use of the Wiltern's space to offer her audience a taste of it.
Yet this was just one act in a blithely disjointed production. A different section had Madonna performing "Frozen," her techno-laced ballad from the late '90s, behind a scrim onto which was projected a video that resembled a high-end perfume commercial starring her daughter Lourdes.
And another, set to the disco-ish "God Control" from "Madame X," found the singer and several of her dancers in Revolutionary War garb as they battled police in modern-day riot gear. "I've got a lot of things I've got to get off my chest tonight," she said. What some of these set pieces were supposed to mean — let alone how each was supposed to link to the others — seemed less important to Madonna than such concerns used to be.
In her mind, perhaps, the through line was simply the novelty of her outsize presence in this reach-out-and-touch-someone context. And indeed there were several amusing audience-participation bits, including one where she took a Polaroid of herself and sold it to an audience member who offered $5,000 — forced scarcity has its advantages — and one where she sauntered down from the stage to sit in an empty seat next to a guy who turned out to be the magician David Blaine.
After a version of "Like a Prayer" that made you think about how thoroughly so many of Madonna's old transgressions have been absorbed into the pop mainstream, Wednesday's show ended with "I Rise," a would-be anthem from "Madame X" written in sympathy with the survivors of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Here "I Rise" was accompanied by a video of news clips that broadened the song's message to encompass all manner of progressive causes: same-sex marriage, Black Lives Matter, the need for clean drinking water in Flint, Mich. It was a lot to shoulder for a pretty flimsy tune, which is no doubt why Madonna came into the crowd again to finish it.
She still understands that proximity to power can rally people to do virtually anything.
Before Madonna's latest Madame X Tour, which has been set in more intimate theater venues across the U.S., kicked off at The Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles for its 10-night run Wednesday night, West Coast fans were already hearing about the singer's super late start times and she had also unexpectedly lopped off a few of her dates in select markets without rescheduling them, including Tuesday, Nov. 12 at The Wiltern.
There was even a class action lawsuit that came out of Florida last week from a fan that is suing Madonna for breach of contract, according to NBC News, for moving her ticketed start time from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. When the tour hit Las Vegas, fans reported that Madonna went on well after midnight. Tour promoter Live Nation did, eventually, change the ticket time on its website to reflect a start time closer to when Madge would actually hit the stage.
The other hot button issue for this tour was the use of the locking Yondr pouches, in which fans had to store their cell phones, smart watches and even Fitbits for the duration of the performance.
"We want you to be present and enjoy the journey with us," a recording of Madonna's sultry voice said ahead of Madame X taking the stage around 10:45 p.m. and playing until 1:30 a.m. for the first evening of her residency at the 1,850-capacity Wiltern.
So did the fans in Los Angeles care about a late start time or having their precious phones locked away in pouches? It didn't seem so.
"I didn't care at all," Andy Polvorosa, 42, from Los Angeles, said as he was hanging out before the show in The Wiltern lobby, wearing his best Madame X-themed garb. "I've seen her many times and she's always late and people need to get over it."
Gio Portillo, 34, also of Los Angeles echoed Polvorosa's stance as well as Madonna's own response to the fan criticism, which was "a queen is never late."
"I'm gonna stick with her no matter what," he added. "I follow a bunch of forums and people were saying, 'Well Beyoncé doesn't do this' or 'Taylor Swift doesn't do that.' Well … they're not Madonna! Who knows what Taylor Swift will be doing in 30 years … if she's still around?"
For her 14th album, "Madame X," Madonna tapped into the music that has influenced her as she's been living in Lisbon, Portugal, for the past few years. She was living as a glorified "soccer mom," she joked on stage, as she supported her son David Banda's passion for fútbol. The songs are a mix of pop, EDM and reggae music with the added sounds she discovered in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, France and Cape Verde.
She's also taken on the persona of Madame X. Who is Madame X? She's a secret agent, an enigma of sorts slowly uncovered via a collection of different characters. In her own words, Madonna explains that Madame X is "a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore and a spy." She even infuses the characters into some of her biggest hits such as "Vogue," "Human Nature," "Papa Don't Preach" and an a cappella version of "Express Yourself."
The show is played out in a series of acts with a lot of production, numerous costume changes and several big moving parts. It's like watching a Broadway production, a naughty cabaret and a really loose format stand-up comedy show.
Without cell phones recording her every word and move, Madonna was more free. She made jokes, she did some improvisation — which was hit-or-miss — and she expressed numerous times her joy at being able to look out into the crowd and see eyeballs instead of at phones since it's "hard to enjoy intimacy with phones."
Though the intimate setting and production were super cool, it was very warm and stuffy inside the venue. The fans who wanted to dance faced off against the fans who wanted to sit and enjoy the production and that resulted in some shouting wars between patrons across the venue. In quieter moments, a dozen or so obnoxious fans acted like hecklers in a comedy club. They couldn't stop yelling out random things. Madonna did "shush" the crowd a few times and rightfully so, as they were being rude attention seekers.
There was plenty political commentary throughout the evening, though mostly done through her music and production. The opening number, "God Control," took on the hot button gun control debate and it was a bit unnerving to hear dozens of gunshot sound effects echo through a very dark venue. But that was the point. She danced about the stage for "Human Nature" and the audience roared along to "Papa Don't Preach."
The third act was a multi-cultural musical melting pot. She brought out a collection of drummers, known as Batukadeiras for "Batuka" and took the audience into the world of Portuguese Fado music with a cover of Isabel De Oliveira's "Fado Pechincha." She soared through "La Isla Bonita" and her vocals were quite beautiful for Cesária Évora's "Sodade." She got the crowd to count down and "cha-cha-cha" to "Medellín" and wrapped up the act with "Extreme Occident."
Before launching into "Frozen," Madonna's dancers, who were on-point all evening, did an incredibly interesting number as they all twisted and contorted in a line on stage and in perfect time. It was breathtaking and hard to look away from. With "Frozen," Madonna was on stage solo, seated behind a screen and backlit by a single white light. As she sang, video of her eldest daughter, Lourdes Leon doing a stunning interpretive dance played out on the screen and at times, Madonna and the imagery of her daughter sweetly played off of each other.
Fans got up and danced to "Come Alive" and "Crave" before the venue turned into a church and everyone sang and clapped along to "Like a Prayer." She ended the set with an encore performance of the powerful anthem, "I Rise," the first single off of "Madame X" that includes selections of a speech by Emma González, a survivor of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Madonna's run continues at The Wiltern Nov. 16-17, 19-21 and 23-25. Suddenly there were more tickets available via LiveNation.com this week. Fans can now score a ticket for a more reasonable price range of $132-$200 instead of the initial $375-plus tickets or the resale tickets, which were initially going for anywhere between $500-$1,500. Those resale tickets have also dropped significantly with many now available in the $200-$400 range.
Madonna is a multitude of things to a multitude of people: LGBTQ+ champion and feminist groundbreaker. Movie star and fashion icon. Prim Brit-esque author and tough-talking New Yorker. And of course, the Queen of Pop. Because through all of the tabloid sensationalism and premature reports of her career demise, nobody has been able to permanently dethrone Ciccone.
Critics have long accused her of being a bandwagoner, a trend-sponge who will latch onto what's popular. There's some truth in that but it only tells a fraction of the story. Like Bowie (not quite in his league but the comparison holds), Madonna schools herself, keeps current and then brings it all into her world. Sure, she's a chameleon. But every shift and shimmy is on her terms.
Take her new Madame X album and the theatrical performance that she's dreamed up to correspond with the concept. A concept, by the way, that appears to be deliberately vague. Madame X is a mother, a child, a teacher, a singer, a secret agent ("traveling the world in disguise"), a nun, a whore and a saint, according to Madonna. The character, then, isn't as well defined as a Ziggy Stardust, but that allows for a lot of wiggle room and freedom.
At the Wiltern on Wednesday, the first of her 10-night stretch at the venue, an undeniably intimate setting by Madonna's standards, we get to enjoy Madame X in all of her convoluted glory, fully-realized or not. The new album isn't necessarily cohesive throughout, but the songs work well in the live setting, right from the opening "God Control."
Incidentally, plenty has already been written about Madonna coming on stage late during this tour, and locking away everyone's phones. Regarding the former, she's always been a bit of an Axl Rose (or vice versa, more accurately) in that regard — longtime fans are used to it. Here, she started at about 10:45 p.m. (impossible to be sure, as our phones were locked away), not a tremendously late time by L.A. standards. As for the phones, she's right. It is better to stay in the moment and enjoy the show, and it is better for the artist to look out at a sea of faces rather than phones. The "I paid my money, I'll do what I want" argument holds no water.
Regardless of what career and lifestyle choices the character of Madame X has made, the music on the album varies dramatically and it was all covered in L.A. There's the pulsating electro-pop of that show-opener and the chill Latin vibe of "Killers Who Are Partying." Madonna reminds us that she's been playing soccer mom in Portugal, simultaneously throwing herself into fado music and embracing the West African Batukadeiras drummers (who made a welcome appearance). As is the same on every night of the tour (the set list remains consistent), we got covers of Isabel De Oliveira's "Fado Pechincha" and Cesária Évora's "Sodade."
The new songs sounded great and, with the show split into five acts and an encore, time flew by remarkably fast. There were some old crowd favorites thrown in, of course — we get shortened versions of "Vogue" and "Papa Don't Preach," a breathy "Human Nature," an a cappella "Express Yourself" and a snippet of "La Isla Bonita," before act VI brought with it a gorgeous rendition of "Frozen" complete with images of daughter Lourdes Leon on the big screen. In the final act, we got a hair-raising "Like a Prayer," with choir.
The biggest criticism we can aim at the show is that the momentum and flow was occasionally stunted by some bizarre breaks. At one point, she sat down to indulge in some magic that only she and those immediately around her could see, with a child and David Blaine. She admitted that she finds magic boring, and she could see it. At her best, Madonna is a fierce, funny performer who can keep you enthralled for hours but there were a few moments on Wednesday night when the air came out a little.
Never for long though. For the gloriously defiant encore, "I Rise," Madonna sang in front of a giant Pride flag to huge applause. She might not be one of music's great political thinkers but Madonna has always made it clear where she stands, and that's on the side of good. She interrupts "Papa Don't Preach" after the "I'm keeping my baby" line to say words to the effect of, "but it wouldn't matter if I wasn't — a woman has a right to do what she wants with her body." She tells us that she moved to Portugal in part to escape Trump. And as Madame X, she tells us all to "wake up!"
By the time we got out and had our phones taken out of the lockable wallets, it was 1:30 a.m. Time had flown by thanks to some excellent music old and new, a remarkable stage show, and a full cast of dancers, drummers and singers. A Madonna show is always going to be great — the only question is, how great?
1. While a lot of Colosseum concerts seem to be tryouts for longer-term residencies, nothing about Madonna's performance suggested that it would be suited for an extended stay in Vegas. In an approach similar to her last several tours, Madonna omitted most of her biggest hits in favor of playing nearly every song from her latest album, June's Madame X, and the hits she did include were often presented in truncated or reworked formats. She took the stage at midnight (for a show scheduled to start at 10:30), devoted lengthy segments to talking directly to the crowd and did not seem to care that at least half the audience acted openly hostile, heckling and booing even after the delayed show finally started. This was an ambitious performance piece from an artist still determined to challenge herself and her audience, not the career victory lap people expect from a Vegas residency.
2. As has been the case with her uneven studio output of the last decade or so, the songs from Madame X benefited from the live treatment, giving them a grander context than the sometimes cluttered studio versions. The odd middle section of "Dark Ballet" became an actual ballet, with interplay between Madonna and her talented, versatile troupe of dancers. "Batuka" was a glorious celebration of the power of music, thanks to the contributions of the Orquestra Batukadeiras, the musicians from Cape Verde whose drums and vocals inspired the song's sound. And recent single "Crave" became a throwback disco dance party, complete with mirror ball.
3. Madonna's current tour marks her first time playing theaters since 1985, and she clearly wanted to take advantage of the more intimate setting by connecting directly with the audience. That's not easy with a crowd of rowdy drunks who just want to hear "Material Girl," though, and thus some of the slower segments fell flat. A bit that she's been doing every night on the tour, taking a Polaroid selfie and auctioning it off to an audience member for charity, went on way too long and was mostly just an invitation for pushy people to rush the stage. And her stories about living in Lisbon and discovering Portuguese music (the inspiration for much of Madame X) were less affecting when they kept getting interrupted. "I still love you, in spite of your hostility," she said at one point, but that might have been a slight exaggeration.
4. Despite the smaller venue, the show's production was every bit as majestic as Madonna's arena tours, with a huge team of dancers (including her young daughters Mercy, Estere and Stella) and musicians (many of them recruited from Portugal). Set pieces included a German-expressionist dystopia, a Portuguese-style fado bar and strident political protest imagery for opener "God Control" and closer "I Rise." Madonna complained of knee problems and a cold (and repeatedly asked for the air conditioning to be turned off), but the 61-year-old easily kept pace with the rest of the performers for the entire show, singing, dancing and changing costumes multiple times.
5. Among the handful of older songs that made their way into the set, "Human Nature" and "American Life" fit best with the theme of defiance, and Madonna emphasized the DGAF attitudes of both. Most of the classics sounded great, especially a soaring "Frozen" (set to a giant video of Madonna's daughter Lourdes dancing) and main-set ender "Like a Prayer," which was every bit as awe-inspiring and empowering as when it was first released. The fans who had stuck around filled in the empty seats at the front of the venue, and everyone sang along, in the kind of cathartic moment of unity that the best pop-music shows can deliver. Madonna finally gave the audience what they wanted; they just had to work for it.
Madonna's been using the word paradox to describe her adventurous 2019 studio album "Madame X" and so indeed is her current concert tour, which closed a three-night engagement at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre on Tuesday.
Although the show's setting was smaller than the arenas she's filled during her decades as the world's biggest pop star, it was hardly an intimate or casual affair. True, she chatted with the audience a bit, got a guy named Brad (a drill sergeant from Kansas City in the front) to give her a swig of warm beer and took a single Polaroid selfie, which she sold to another fellow for $4,000, with the money going to charity.
In a welcome nod to theater tradition, photos were not allowed; fans had to lock their phones into bags provided at the entry which were opened upon departure.
Paradoxically both charming and offputting, Madame X made demands of her audience. She asked if they were paying attention, told them to sit the f— down, and, after being distracted by doors at the back of the theater opening, queried, "Did you enjoy this fado club, those who stayed in the room?"
The fado café, her re-creation of her time spent as a soccer mom in Portugal, where she met local musicians and fell in love with their artistry, was a highlight in the middle of the two-and-a-half hour show (which started a half-hour late), a sometimes murky mix of performance art, politics and song.
The segment included the evening's most joyous number, the call-and-response "Batuka," featuring the gorgeous, dynamic, singing and hand-drumming, all-woman ensemble Orquestra Batukadeiras from Cape Verde.
Singing "Sodade" and accompanying herself on guitar, Madonna explained that the song, popularized by Cesária Évora and sung in Creole, was about longing. Moving to Colombia, Madonna and company performed the catchy dance tune "Medellin," then closed the club section with the introspective "Extreme Occident."
The easygoing café was a big contrast to the jam-packed, high-concept start: a silhouetted character typing out James Baldwin's credo "Artists are here to disturb the peace" as shots were fired, followed by the anti-gun disco-y "God Control," a wild set piece with Madonna dressed as a founding father facing off with cops wearing riot gear, images of the American flag and video of gun violence. Whew!
"Dark Ballet," the second number, was even more out there, with Joan of Arc references, religious garb and battles with dancers in gas masks reminiscent of the mice in "Nutcracker," complete with an electronic alteration of Tchaikovsky's familiar melody.
A jazzy, percussive version of "Human Nature" from 1994, one of a handful of non-"Madame X" tunes, had shadow images on the back wall and a throng of girls, including Madonna's young daughters Stella, Estere and Mercy James, serving up MeToo era sentiments as Madge stated, "I'm not your bitch."
Derided on its 2003 release, the busy rap-filled, social statement "American Life" — wearing her Madame X eye-patch, Madonna played guitar — sounded great and urgent.
"Frozen" was simple and beautiful, sung solo in front of a striking black-and-white video of her daughter Lourdes dancing that filled the theater's back screen. Next, Madonna's whole congregation, dressed in colorful flowing robes, convened for the positively upbeat "Come Alive."
The tune began, accompanied by powerful video of Parkland demonstrators, and closed as fans on one side of the theater basked in their idol's glow as Madame X herself exited down an aisle (letting people touch her!), with markedly minimal fanfare.
It's a wonder Madonna was ever able to play in vast arenas and stadiums.
At the Golden Gate Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 5, performing the final date of her three-night Madame X tour residency in San Francisco, the 61-year-old singer seemed to take note of every little distraction in the room: the light-up flower crown someone was wearing in the 18th row; the exit door on the left side of the building that opened and closed a few times when a couple people dared go to the restroom; even the murmurs coming from the darkest corners of the balcony.
"Don't talk while I'm talking," she snapped. Adding for good measure, "Don't talk while I'm not talking."
To be fair, she is Madonna – a pop icon, cultural shape-shifter, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, mother, hero, survivor and so much more. She's someone whose perennial desire for control has carried her farther than any of her peers, making her the highest-charting female musician and highest-grossing female touring musician in history.
On Tuesday at the 2,297-capacity Golden Gate Theatre (the concert was originally scheduled for Oct. 31 but delayed due to production issues), Madonna was battling a cold, suffering from a torn ligament and had a bad knee ("and no hours of sleep," she said), but she still put on a spectacular show.
It was rife with bawdy humor, attitude, sex, loads of swear words and references to her private parts — basically everything you want from a Madonna concert. She demanded the same level of effort from her audience, despite inexplicably sweltering temperatures inside the theatre.
"You're kind of lazy — just putting that out there," Madonna said, midway through the show. "It's OK. Because I'm not."
Madonna didn't need to wear a bedazzled patch over her left eye and cloak herself as Madame X. She didn't need to play a late show on a school night at a small, overheated theater on a dreggy corner off Market Street. She didn't need to run through a two-hour-plus set crammed with songs from a new album that nobody truly loves.
But Madonna is hardly one to do things the easy way. Rather than book huge tour stacked with hits, which is what most fans who grew up with her music would have most likely preferred, she is slogging her way across the country performing long residencies in small venues in select cities, focusing almost entirely on material from her 14th studio recording, the dark and disorienting "Madame X."
"I have wanted to have this intimate experience with my audience for three decades," she said on Tuesday.
Despite the close-up environment, fans got the full Madonna spectacle, complete with 41 musicians, singers and dancers; several costume changes and video vignettes; and a lone typewriter used to clack away epitaphs for the crowd ("Artists are here to disturb the peace," read a recurring quote from James Baldwin).
The songs on "Madame X," are all over the place, bouncing between trap, hip-hop, reggaeton, Latin pop and electronic dance music without quite falling, erm, into the groove. Thematically, the record is wide-reaching too – touching on the personal, political, spiritual, sensual and everything in between.
But on stage she brought it all together, highlighting infectious new songs like "Crazy" and "I Don't Search I Find," alongside few choice classics such as a faithful rendition of "Vogue," a capella singalong of "Express Yourself" and a thunderous set-closing "Like A Prayer."
As she glided across the stage to the retro house groove of the recent single "Crave," featuring Swae Lee, it become clear where Katy, Miley, Britney, Gaga and Gwen all got their moves and gumption.
For all her defiance, Madonna remains a devoted artist, who elevated each tune with a completely original production revolving around her touring ensemble and theatrical show built around a pair of movable staircases and variety of projections.
Madonna highlighted her family at every turn, featuring oldest daughter Lourdes, 23, dancing in a dramatic video clip accompanying "Frozen;" and employing 13-year-old Mercy and 7-year-old twins Stelle and Estere as part of her live dance crew (maybe a little bit past their appropriate bed times).
She exerted her sense of control to the audience experience, taking the stage a little after 11 p.m. and prohibiting the use of cell phones, smart watches and photography (including press, instead supplying a pair of blurry shots of the stage).
Since its release in June, "Madame X" has sold only 90,000 copies in the US, less than half its predecessor, 2015's "Rebel Heart," which moved nearly 250,000 copies (and roughly 9,910,000 fewer copies than her best-seller, 1984's "Like a Virgin").
This tour feels like Madonna's attempt to reestablish herself from the ground up.
Once a wise-cracking pair of eyebrows inseparable from the attitude and energy of New York City, she has spent the past few years dividing her time between her manor in London and a mansion in the village of Sintra, Portugal, where her teenage son David Banda attends a prestigious soccer academy.
At one point in the concert she recreated (with a smidge of cultural appropriation) a Portuguese nightclub on the stage, for a segment that found her playing musical tourist through "Killers Who Are Partying," a fado flavored cut from the "Madame X" album; a cover of "Sodade," a song made famous by Cesaria Evora; and the harder-edged "Batuka," which found her backed by an ensemble of batuque drummers and singers called Orquestra Batukadeiras.
"You won't see this anywhere else, no siree," she said.
For the encore song, "I Rise," the screen behind her came alive with recent news footage of protests and marches in solidarity with the resist movement, but as Madonna sang the verses it became apparent that the song was as much about her as current events: "I managed to survive/ Freedom's what you choose to do with what's been done to you."
The last standing icon from pop's halcyon days (her closest contemporaries, Michael Jackson, Prince and George Michael each died young) Madonna not only remains alive but she is embracing every moment of her existence.
"Nobody is anybody's bitch," she said. "I can't spell it out any clearer than that."
She meant it.
"Artists are here to disturb the peace."
One has to wonder if Madonna Louise Ciccone has accepted this James Baldwin quote as her life's mantra. Let's face it; the native Michigander has always had a reputation as a rabble-rouser. So, when it was announced that she would embark on an intimate, multi-city tour playing multiple dates at each locale, well, the surprising move probably shouldn't have come as a surprise.
This past week saw her kick off the first of seven shows at Chicago's intimate (as far as an arena-filling Madonna is concerned) and acoustically superb Chicago Theatre. Dubbed the "Madame X" tour, in support of her 14th album of the same name, it quickly became apparent why these shows wouldn't play at the local Enormodome. The show had more in common with a Broadway musical or an art performance than to a big stadium spectacle. Loosely divided into five acts, the evening mostly ignored Madge's vast cavalcade of hits, and instead focused on her most recent release. And when the chestnuts made appearances, they didn't resemble their former selves. The disco-pop of "Express Yourself" was transformed into an acapella singalong, and "Papa Don't Preach" became a revolutionary anthem for the #metoo movement. Still, a small sacrifice to pay for the equivalent of seeing an icon in what felt like a living room setting.
Flanked by a dozen or so backup dancers, the 61-year-old Madonna left most of the heavy lifting in her routines for them to execute throughout the night. At times, she still seemed hampered by a recent knee injury that didn't allow her movements to be as fluid as one might expect. Fortunately, it felt like addition by subtraction. It freed her up to focus on her singing, something that usually gets lost amongst the pageantry and window dressing that accompanied so many previous tours. Not to imply that this was Madonna unplugged. Her complex set pieces helped drive home her raging against abortion rights (the aforementioned "Papa Don't Preach"), gun violence ("Dark Ballet"), and oppression of women (a group of Cape Verde Batuque singers helped make "Batuka" an evening highlight).
Of course, with ambition, sometimes failure trails close behind. And this evening had those as well. In an effort to make the performances feel more intimate, Madge took moments between songs to engage with the audience. While it certainly brought a human element to the performance, some of the exchanges played out for too long, zapping the evening of some desperately need pacing and momentum. "Get out of your comfort zone!" she exclaimed at one point, completely owning her shortcomings with the same enthusiasm with which she owned her victories.
The overreaching arch was about the artist pushing the boundaries of what they know and expanding it outward to discover how much further you can reach. "Not everyone is coming to the future because not everyone is learning from the past," she sang during "Future." She was pushing her audience as well. Buy the ticket. Take the ride. Fall flat on your face in the hopes of flying past the sun. No hits meant that she also wanted YOU to work to get there because that's where she's heading. But again, this is Madonna. She's here to disrupt, and if you're not with her, you can damn well expect to be left behind.
There will be a lot of exhausted people in Chicago over the next week and a half, particularly after attending one of Madonna's shows during her mini-residency at the Chicago Theatre, which, after Wednesday night's kickoff affair, boasts six more shows over the next 10 days.
With a 10:45 p.m. start time, and topping nearly three hours, the late-night, cell-phone-free spectacle will no doubt garner the ire of some attendees, but the greater takeaway is just how mentally exhausted the performer leaves her fans after the multi-faceted affair, making the show a worthwhile time investment at any start time.
In support of her new album, "Madame X," released in June on Interscope Records, the show — like the record — extrapolates the many personas of one of the most polarizing figures in music history through well-rehearsed theatrical bits that blur the lines of performance art. Madonna as an artist, a mother, a global citizen, a New Yorker, a Midwesterner, a feminist, a provocateur, a human — all shine through in very distinct and connected ways under the guise of a secret agent looking to find her true identity.
The album/tour title is the moniker originally given to Madonna by dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, with whom she studied in her late teens. But while Madame X is a nod to the singer's origin story — with a very concerted effort to bring the concert back to an intimate theater setting much like her very first tour — it's also indicative of how Madonna is pushing the envelope forward with a conscientiousness demanded in the new world order.
"Artists are here to disrupt the peace" was the proclaimed theme of the night. Taken from a quote from the great American writer-playwright-activist James Baldwin, the words were scrawled across a massive sheer curtain, spelled out one letter at a time, as the pounding of every "typewriter" key stroke became a percussive heart beat introducing the opening number "God Control," which begged for a new democracy. "Everybody's hurt. What is important is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive," the passage continued.
The words also hinted at Madonna's decision to also ban cell phones throughout the tour. "I want nothing to be between us … be present and enjoy the world of Madame X," she explained.
Madonna, who now lives in Lisbon, Portugal, gave fans a view into her personal world, talking of how she repressed her loneliness in a new country by venturing out into fado clubs and meeting people who would eventually shape her new record, including the late singer Celeste Rebordão Rodrigues whose 16-year-old grandson, Gaspar, was part of the instrumental ensemble. The two paired up for a sweet fado serenade sung in Portuguese; Madonna would also sing in Spanish throughout the show. In another act, Madonna delivered her new song "Batuka" with a history lesson, introducing her audience to the women carrying on the traditions of the Batuque, a music and dance genre native to the Republic of Cabo Verde.
Through panoramic projections, hi-def video and a brilliant use of light and silhouette to denote set changes, concertgoers were transported to the clubs of Lisbon for a trifecta of "La Isla Bonita," "Sodade" (a Cesaria Evora cover) and "Medellin" and then to the desert of Marrakesh for rousing versions of "Come Alive" and "Future." There were easily 25 collaborators who made the vision come to life, including her own children. Seven-year-old twins Stella and Estere were an adorable addition to the live ensemble, while oldest daughter Lourdes was projected on a giant screen in a slow-mo, black-and-white dance montage as Madonna delivered a tender version of "Frozen" that made the two virtually inseparable.
Though Madonna relied way too heavily on Auto-Tune, and her intimate between-act stage banter was incredibly bizarre and disjointed (swigging beer from strangers, selling Polaroid selfies to the highest bidder and making jokes about Trump's small manhood), when she was on stage all eyes were glued to her and her backup squad, particularly for legacy songs "Vogue" and "Like A Prayer."
The queen of choreography lived up to that title with evocative interpretations, even though a knee injury that delayed the beginning of the tour prevented her from fully participating. True to character, every song rendition had its share of innuendo, sexual or topical, and Madonna relied heavily on the latter in a good deal of hyper-political moments, using "Papa Don't Preach" as a platform for pro-choice beliefs and padding "Express Yourself" and "Human Nature" with feminist credos. It was the final song "I Rise" that left a lasting impression as a video reel documenting the students of Parkland, the fight for marriage equality and the Flint water crisis gave way to a rainbow-colored flag as Madonna and her backup dancers marched through the audience with fists raised.
"I ask you to be freedom fighters, stand up for those that don't have the voice or privileges we have. We won't always be popular," said Madonna, "but we have to disturb the peace."
Madonna has always done what she wants. Roll around the VMAs stage in a wedding dress? Of course. Forego a traditional record deal and sign up with a promoter instead? Sure thing. Skip merrily from sound to sound, even when people tell her she's "too old" to make whatever genre she dabbles in next? Absolutely. So when Madonna decides to not put herself out on a typical tour – a different arena every night, the whole thing done and dusted in a matter of weeks – you go right ahead and book her residencies in different venues across the globe, allowing her to perform for weeks on end, in one location, in rooms far smaller than anyone in 2019 has any legal right to witness her in.
Pop's most rebellious star does just as she pleases during the first round of the 'Madame X' world tour at the plush Howard Gilman Opera House too. You might expect the world's biggest pop stars to have their audience out the door by 11pm but, by the time the clock strikes that hour in Brooklyn, Madonna's only just come on stage. Not that anyone minds – there are a few outbursts of impatient claps and cheers in the time leading up to her arrival but the overriding atmosphere in the venue is one of pure excitement as people – in their finest gowns, tuxes, and vintage Madonna merch – sip wine from plastic beakers and hover in the select zones were phone use is allowed (all mobiles are locked in pouches for the entirety of the show).
The late start is immediately worth it. The show is a mind-blowing riot of theatrics and powerful political messaging, opening with a quote from James Baldwin being banged out onto a screen laid over the stage by a silhouetted woman at a typewriter. Each key press thuds like a gunshot and is accompanied by a dancer jerking and flinching as if he's been hit by a bullet. "Artists are here to disturb the peace" the message ends before the queen of pop emerges and launches straight into the autotune-heavy anti-gun anthem 'God Control'.
Later, a man wearing a gas mask sits down to play a piano, from the top of which Madonna is dragged by two dancers dressed as truncheon-waving policemen while she screams "Death to the patriarchy!" Women's rights are a constant theme throughout the show, from the moment she's joined on stage by a host of women – including daughters Stella, Estere and Mercy James – to chant "I'm not your bitch" to her, changing the lyrics of 'Papa Don't Preach' to "I'm not keeping my baby"
The 'Madame X' residency is not only intimate in size (tonight's venue holds just over 2,000 people): it also allows its host to put on a show that feels more personal than your typical arena fare. There are moments when fans crowd down to the front of the stage for prolonged chats with the star, although they sometimes come away with their egos bruised. When she invites anyone with cash to come to the front and bid on a Polaroid selfie, one fan is admonished for trying to hand over $1500 in $50 bills and for stepping up onto her stage uninvited. Towards the end of the show, she takes a seat in the audience and grills another spectator on their life, responding to their suggestion she take their LinkedIn handle with a drawled, "I don't use the internet to meet people".
Potent messages and funny sass aside, the show also shines a light on a softer side of Madonna, which often gets missed under her star power, rebellious nature and outspoken moments. The setlist draws mostly from 'Madame X' rather than her wealth of classics, and she looks happiest when she's paying tribute to the musicians and sounds that inspired her to make that record.
She gets the crowd to sing 'Happy Birthday' to young musician Gaspar Varela, speaks lovingly and at length about her time in Lisbon, and generally does her best to educate her audience on Fado and other traditional music she's drawn from. At one point, she's joined by Orquestra Batukadeiras, a group of female Batuque musicians from Cabo Verde, whom she sits amongst to help tap out a percussive song. She later points out the Prime Minister of Cabo Verde watching from up high and keeps admiringly referring to him for the rest of the show.
As much as Madonna might do what she wants, she also recognises the need to crowd-please at least some of the time. As such, the setlist is littered with some of her biggest songs – an a cappella verse of 'Express Yourself' here, an early rousing rendition of 'Vogue' there. It's 'Like A Prayer' that provides one of the most joyous moments of the night, though, transforming the opera house into Madonna's own church. Moments later, she's in the aisle, marching towards the exit as a defiant version of 'I Rise' brings the night full circle.
The crowd follows her to the door like her very own disciples as the house lights come up, jostling to get their phone pouches unlocked to tell the world what they've just witnessed – pop's ultimate freedom fighter putting on one of the most powerful, empowering, and stunning gigs of the year.
"Stop raping the matriarchy!" Madonna, clad in a sequin-encrusted Revolutionary war costume, shouted to the sold-out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House on Thursday night. Like the Madame X character she crafted for her 14th album, the Madonna who has opted for a theater residency after 37 years of touring stadiums and arenas is playing with multiple dualities.
And like the alter-egos at the center of the album that dominates the concert, the show itself has a range of identities: at times it's performance art, a political rally, a comedy show, a church and even her home in Lisbon, which inspired the record. And Madonna is everything from a political activist and a spy to a comedian and a "cha-cha" dancer on the stage. So why not mix sequins with a getup Thomas Jefferson might have sported while trying to protect women's rights?
As she never really lets you forget, Madonna is calling the shots with "Madame X," this show and plenty else besides. And for her, that means attempting to use her privilege and power to enact change while still owning her artistry, even if it is inexplicable at times.
Like the first two nights of Madonna's residency — which opened Tuesday but waited till Thursday to invite the press — attendees were required to lock up their phones for the entirety of the two-hour-plus performance. "I'm not here to be loved — I'm here to be free," she says during the show, and part of that freedom apparently means not being photographed on anyone's cellphone. Still, she knows the rule is controversial, so she takes the opportunity to auction off one Polaroid selfie she takes on stage to an audience member for $1,000 (on opening night, the buyer was Rosie O'Donnell).
Another part of being free is playing a set focused on the present and dominated by new material, as she has done for most of her tours in recent years. While longtime fans were probably prepared for this, it's almost cruel: The few songs from Madge's earlier career that she performs, including "Express Yourself" and "Papa Don't Preach," are largely cut to under a minute, while her "Madame X" tracks are performed in full. One couldn't help but get the sense that the words in her recent song "Future" rang true for some members of the audience: "Not everybody's coming to the future."
The present Madonna is also 61, and the move from stadiums and arenas to a more intimate setting reflects that as well. She's more than capable of dancing, but the demanding routines and choreography that a stadium tour would require may be off the table. Instead, the set is steeped in political commentary. For the opening of the set, she provides another duality: a James Baldwin credo and gunshots to introduce her anti-firearm disco anthem "God Control," which sees the pop icon prompting the audience to "wake up." Soon enough, she's taken on an espionage persona in "I Don't Search I Find" with a noir-style narrative where the vocoder is an interrogation tool and is hiding in plain sight as a blonde-bombshell spy with "Vogue." Later she becomes a Lisbon club singer, putting her own spin on Portuguese genre "fado" backed by the guitarra-playing grandson of late fado singer Celeste Rodrigues, Gaspar Varela, and invite a group of batuque musicians to support her for "Batuka."
Whether it's more sequins — on nun garb during a choir-backed performance of "Like a Prayer" — or altering her famous lyric "I'm keeping my baby" to "I'm not keeping my baby" on "Papa Don't Preach," even the small moments of nostalgia are brought into the "Madame X" era and ethos. Yet, the most undeniably striking moment of the evening was a performance of "Frozen" where the legend sat inside a black and white hologram of her daughter Lourdes reimagining the song's 1998 music video, bringing the stirring ballad into the present.
Of course, Madonna's fight for "freedom" comes with creative risks. Some, like "Frozen," pay off. Others are clunky, like when she does the Hustle in the aforementioned Revolutionary War costume during "God Control" while being bounced between two police officers' shields. She touts female empowerment in unusual ways, with lines like "This is what it's like to have Mozart coming out of my pussy," getting the audience to chant "I'm not sorry," and having her young daughter Esther declaring #Time's Up to the audience.
By the end of the evening, the themes reach a closure: The show's early gunshots are answered by a rallying cry for community with "I Rise," which begins with an excerpt of a recorded speech by Parkland shooting survivor and activist Emma González. It's Madonna's warrior stance — one that includes exiting the stage via the aisle with an all-female choir.
And with that, a show full of extremes — and that, on its three opening nights, began at nearly 11 p.m. and ended after 1 a.m — comes to an end. Earlier in the evening Madonna turned on the charm and apologized for the lateness. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting tonight," she smiled. "I have a lot of wigs. I have six kids. I'll never do it again." And once this tour concludes, she probably won't — at least not at an opera house in Brooklyn.
"You guys know who Madame X is by now, right?" Madonna asked the crowd midway through her set last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, her diamanté eyepatch glinting in the stage lights. "She's an equestrian, a head of state, a cha cha instructor, a whore, a saint."
She's also Madonna Louise Ciccone, of course, and she is an entertainer; a job she's held, essentially without pause, for nearly four decades. Though never quite as happy-go-loosely as she seems to be doing at this limited series of shows: a freewheeling two hours and 15 minutes of song and dance and conversation in a 2,000-seat venue so intimate, she might stop to steal a sip of your beer — which she did more than once, from a bedazzled fan.
It's called the Madame X Tour, so it's not surprising that the evening pulls largely from that album, her 14th, released this past June. But Madonna is nothing if not a canny keeper of her own flame, and several stone classics from her catalog made their way into the setlist, as well as several lesser but still beloved (particularly to this self-selected crowd) hits.
For nearly every "God Control" and "Killers Who Are Partying" from X, there was a segue to the past: "Dark Ballet" into 1995's "Human Nature," in which she spun herself like a gymnastic clock inside a circular wall inset, or "I Don't Search I Find" yielding to a spare reprise of "Papa Don't Preach," its circa-1986 chorus defiantly changed to "I'm not keeping my baby," and followed by a short, fierce disquisition on reproductive rights.
Though some two dozen songs manage to appear in whole or in part, she often stopped to interact during costume changes or between numbers, confiding that moving to Lisbon to become a soccer mom (her son David attended an intensive sports academy there) had left her bored and lonely, and then led her to the city's fado clubs; dropping dirty jokes ("Amy Schumer told me to tell that one, so if you don't like it, blame her"); and even dipping into the audience more than once for a get-to-know-you chat (Carol the accountant and Dan from Clapham, you live among immortals now).
As befitting an artist who has spent so much of her career exploring other cultures, there were touches of them everywhere: Gaspar Varela, the young grandson of fado legend Celeste Rodrigues, guesting on guitar; the all-female singing troupe from the island-nation of Cape Verde, known for centuries as a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, who joined her, joyfully, on the rhythmic celebration "Batuka." A rotating cast of gorgeous multi-culti dancers and musicians appeared in everything from nun's habits (for the string section) and Midsommar chic (white gowns, flower crowns) to something like Stork Club meets Latin disco (much of the show's back half).
She paired those somewhat tangentially with her own costume changes, emerging first in winking, Dolly Parton-on-the-Potomac camp (Revolutionary War via 10,000 rhinestones) before morphing into various other looks: femme fatale trench coat with Veronica Lake hair; glitter-bombed Amadeus; a sort of couture Ice Capades in fluttery navy tulle. She drily apologized, too, for the show's tardy start time, at nearly 11pm: "I have an injury. I have six children. I have a lot of wigs."
It was her family, actually, who provided some of the night's most genuinely moving moments — a rare glimpse of domestic life transported to the stage when her seven-year-old twins, Stella and Estere, joined her for a giddy snatch of group choreography, and teenage daughter Mercy slung her arm around her mother's neck for an acapella "Express Yourself" singalong.
Most striking though was a full scrim late in the show that projected a black-and-white video of a dancer veiled in long curtains of dark hair, which lifted to reveal her firstborn, 22-year-old Lourdes. A trick of stagecraft allowed Madonna to sing her shimmering 1998 ballad "Frozen" both to her daughter and from inside her; the moment was mesmerizing, and exquisitely tender.
The show is hardly without flaws: her political messaging, though heartfelt, is often clumsily on the nose, and several set projections leaned toward the community-theater end of things. But in moments like these, when the construct of Madame X disappeared, what remained was something simpler and somehow much more satisfying than the equestrian or the cha-cha instructor or the saint (or even the mother, the magpie, the erstwhile standup comedian): Not just a pop star and perennial provocateur, but an artist in full.
The joy of being a Madonna fan is that she's a true artist, an incisive creative eye who embeds meaning and shades of emotional grey into her work; the other great thing about being a Madonna fan is that she's an artist who also happens to be a pop star. So when she has something to say, it's in the details, yes -- but wait long enough and it'll also be bludgeoned over your head.
"Freedom is the theme of this show," Madonna told an enthralled, intimate crowd at the Thursday (Sept. 19) night show of her Madame X Tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. "And the theme of my life, for that matter."
She might have explicitly spelled out her mission statement during the show, but when it kicked off just before 11pm ET, she eased into the theme with a characteristically unabashed mixture of high art and high camp. As a silhouetted typist hammered out a James Baldwin quote at a desk, a lithe dancer mimed dodging bullets, eventually succumbing to the barrage. After that, Madonna hit the stage, staring out from beneath a Revolutionary War-style tricorn hat as a battered American flag fluttered via video projection. There probably isn't a more deliciously kitschy way to introduce a show speaking to what personal freedom -- and danger -- means to the America-born pop artist.
The first song, Madame X's lush disco standout "God Control," turned the focus from national mythology to personal history, demonstrating exactly where Madonna found her freedom -- on the sweaty floors of New York City discotheques in the late '70s and early '80s -- and how she sees it, quite literally, under fire (the gunshot-punctuated musical odyssey explicitly nods to the 2016 Pulse massacre).
From there, the Madame X Tour moves on to other freedoms she sees under duress: The freedom to act and the freedom to speak. With regards to the former, "Dark Ballet" found her playing out the persecution of Joan of Arc surrounded by a visually compelling mixture of Christian iconography and pagan pageantry, while a cool jazz take on "Human Nature" fulfilled the latter, allowing her the opportunity to tell off critics projecting their hang-ups on a woman who dares speak of sex without a coquettish blush (while treating the crowd to a spread eagle that would put Veronica and Charlie to shame).
In the midst of an a cappella "Express Yourself," Madonna brought out three of her children -- Stella, Estere and Mercy James -- to shimmy with the dancers and read a few quotes of empowerment she'd provided for them. Later in the show, eldest daughter Lourdes arrived for the highlight of the evening, dwarfing even her mother. Well, only literally speaking. While stark, three-story-high footage of Lourdes dancing played on a translucent screen in front of her, Madonna delivered a soul-scraping rendition of her 1998 classic "Frozen." Seeing the Queen of Pop, illuminated by a pinprick of light, engulfed in her daughter's dancing was a visually stunning moment in an evening full of them.
Another unexpected setlist choice (well, at least for those who didn't catch her incendiary Pride Island performance) arrived via "American Life," the unjustly maligned title track from her 2003 album (which was more a victim of the politically paranoid era than any creative deficiency on her part). Her arms snaking above her head as she ran down the list of capitalist concessions that fail to satisfy, Madonna looked exceptionally invested during this glitchpop gem -- probably because this is one throwback song she hasn't delivered ad infinitum.
That fresh, loose (okay, loose for a notorious control freak like Madge) attitude permeated most of her Madame X songs -- which were the lion's share of the setlist. Naturally, that was bad for anyone expecting a greatest-hits parade, but excellent for those open-minded enough to turn off their phones, their expectations and allow an artist they trust and adore the freedom to indulge in what's getting her off at the moment.
After moving to Lisbon for her son's soccer aspirations, she's currently inspired by the music she heard there: Fado, morna, salsa and more. Aside from playing the Madame X tracks that dabble in those genres, her non-album original song "Welcome to My Fado Club" (mashed-up with "La Isla Bonita") gave her a chance to moonlight as the beguiling hostess of a hole-in-the-wall Latin club, which -- considering her affection for Golden Era Hollywood -- is certainly within her wheelhouse. But unlike most '40s productions on a Beverly Hills lot, Madonna bothered to include the authentic talents she was paying homage to, bringing out Gaspar Varela, the grandson of fado singer Celeste Rodrigues (whom she sang with prior to the legend's 2018 passing), for several numbers, in addition to an all-female orchestra from Cape Verde for her rousing, thunderous Madame X highlight "Batuka."
"I'm not worried about being popular," Madonna told the crowd (which, to be fair, was hanging on her every word) near the end of the show. For the Madame X Tour, she means it. At BAM Thursday night, the would-be soccer mom was free of setlist demands, time constraints (she took the stage late and skillfully bantered with the audience as long as she felt like it) and the impersonal glow of an arena-full of cell phones desperate to capture a 30-second snippet for a social account.
The Madame X persona might be a spy, a teacher, a saint, a whore, a cha cha instructor and a mother, but she's also something not listed in the album lines notes -- she's a more authentic version of Madonna Veronica Louise Ciccone than we've seen on stage in some time.
Madonna has never shied away from taking chances. Thirty years after she set fire to the Eighties with the disco basilica Like a Prayer, she's as gloriously weird as ever. Hence her excellent new Madame X tour, a testament to the genius in her madness. Instead of a full-blown tour, she's doing these shows as residencies in intimate venues, starting with 17 nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. The tiny rooms are the perfect place for Our Lady to strut her stuff. Like her Madame X album, the show is messy, but anyone who's scared of a mess should avoid Ms. Ciccone entirely, because as any fan knows, her weirdness is where she finds her greatness.
The show follows Madonna's adventures around the globe. "Everybody knows I moved to Lisbon to become a soccer mom," she said on Thursday night. "I found myself alone, without friends, a little bit bored." So after too many Sundays at her son's soccer games, she started going out to Lisbon clubs and flipped for Portugal's fado rhythms, which got her creative juices flowing again. As she announced, "From now on, I'm Madame X and Madame X loves to dance!"
The show started extremely late — she didn't go on until nearly 11 p.m., which she kept joking about all night. "Forgive me if I kept you waiting too long this evening," Madonna purred seductively, stretched out on top of a piano. "I don't like to keep you waiting. But I have an injury. I have six kids. I have a LOT of wigs." Then she had a couple of her dancers help her off the piano and improvised a pop melody: "I bet you had more sleep than meeee!" No rest for the wicked, indeed.
It was a cellphone-free show, with the audience's phones locked into Yondr pouches that got unsealed at the end of the night. (Honestly, all shows should be this way.) Madonna kept mentioning how much she enjoyed looking into the audience and seeing our eyes as opposed to screens. "The eyes are the window of the soul. But there's one window you're forgetting." She opened her legs, to a blast of orchestral music. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is what it's like to have Mozart coming out of your pussy! I am one classy broad!"
The Madame X songs work much better in a theater setting — the album has always felt more like a soundtrack to a stage spectacle, an Original Cast Recording, than an actual listening experience. She had a small army of dancers, plus scene-stealing musicians like trumpeter Jessica Pina and cellist Mariko Muranaka. One of the highlights came early on: "Human Nature," one of her most enduringly great Nineties hits. She turned it into a stripped-down confession, writhing athletically before doing a bongo solo. It ended with Madonna surrounded by 11 black women — including three of her daughters, Stella, Estere and Mercy James — chanting, "I'm not your bitch!" Madonna yelled at the end, "Have we made ourselves cleeeear?" Just in case, she handed the mic to the very young Stella, who said, "Hashtag #TimesUp!" For good measure, the ladies sang an a cappella chorus of "Express Yourself."
The show opens with a motto from James Baldwin: "Art is here to prove that all safety is an illusion…Artists are here to disturb the peace." Fighting words, but Madonna lived up to them in "God Control," an elaborate production number with cops attacking the dancers under a video montage of news footage. Points were made, including gun control, police brutality and why Madonna doesn't approve of smoking dope.
Her comic banter was as stellar as the music — she was loose, salty, spontaneous, thriving on her closeness with the crowd. At one point, she crashed in a vacant seat next to a London fan named Dan, flirted, drank his beer, apologized for going on so late, drank more of his beer ("I come from a long line of alcoholics") and then said, "Dan, you've been a great crowd, but I need to get on with my journey." As she explained, "Freedom is the theme of this show. And the theme of my life, for that matter."
The night's two big emotional powerhouses came near the end. She sang "Frozen" all alone, visible behind a video screen of her eldest daughter Lourdes doing an interpretive dance, with her "MOM" knuckle tattoo. It was a beautifully simple moment — just the singer, the daughter and that song, a show-stopper from the album (Ray of Light) where she fully embraced her hippie-mama spirituality. It also demonstrated that for all her love of theatrical excess, she's a singer before she's anything else. The night climaxed with a full-choir "Like a Prayer," a moment that felt sacred yet also sleazy — the ultimate Madonna combination.
Madame X has the global sprawl of her 2001 Drowned World Tour, which this fan would definitely have to pick as her best live show ever. She included a a fantastic fado interlude, starring the Portuguese guitarra of 16-year-old Gaspar Varela. Madonna sang a fado chestnut made famous by his great-grandmother, the late Celeste Rodrigues. There was also a showcase of Batuque musicians from Cape Verde, the all-female Orquestra Batukadeiras, working a centuries-old percussive tradition. She picked up her guitar to cover the Cesária Évora classic "Sodade" — a fangirl moment very much in the Madonna tradition, because what makes her a pop genius is the way she moves so fluidly between fangirling and creating her own art. It echoed her last tour, when she covered Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose," which somehow wound up as Lady Gaga's big drag-show performance in A Star Is Born. (Don't be surprised if "Sodade" shows up in Gaga's next Oscar-winning film?)
As always, she focused on new material, doing almost all of the erratic Madame X. (Alas, not "Bitch I'm Loca.") But the most powerful moments came when she revamped her classics. "Vogue" became a B-movie fantasia with a troop of femme fatales in a black-and-white film noir cityscape, wearing blonde wigs, shades and trench coats. She strummed "La Isla Bonita" as a guitar cha-cha. "This is my striptease right here," she announced. "This is as X-rated as it's gonna get tonight." Then she peeled off one glove, in homage to Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Natalie Wood in Gypsy. One of the night's big musical surprises: "American Life," which holds up remarkably well, as she vented her eccentric political rage with Mirwais Ahmadzaï's vintage Francodisco frisson.
The stronger songs from Madame X came alive in this setting — especially "Extreme Occident," "Crave" and "Crazy," where she dropped to her knees before one of her dancers and sang, "I bend my knees for you like a prayer," a foretaste of the "Like a Prayer" climax to come. She did "Medellin" with a video boost from Maluma. She did just one verse of "Papa Don't Preach," as an excuse to change the key line to "I've made up my mind / I'm not keeping my baby." (The song could have used that tweak back in 1986, but better late.)
The crowd was camp as Christmas and twice as loud, gathering Madonna worshippers from all over the world, dressed to the nines. Shout out to the silver fox rocking his vintage "Frankie Say Relax" T-shirt. (Bet he's the same guy wearing that shirt in the new Beastie Boys Book, in the photo of fans outside their 1985 NYC show as Madonna's opening act.)
In some ways, this show is Madonna's version of Springsteen on Broadway, scaling down to an intimate theatrical setting to tell one account of her life story. It's yet another bond for these two oddly linked legends, who've been topping charts together since the days when Like a Virgin went up against Born in the U.S.A. In June, Madonna's latest concept album debuted the same week as Bruce's Western Stars cowboy trip, giving them the Number One and Two albums. How gratifying that these two Eighties icons are not only still topping the charts, they're doing it with their wildest, most experimental work. We chose well when we picked these two as our heroes, right? As Madame X proves, Madonna will never be the kind of superstar who repeats her successes, sticks to her strengths, or plays it safe. Instead, she's getting weirder with age. Thank all the angels and saints for that.
The "Queen of Pop" Madonna headlined the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn, New York, which was part of her "Madame X" Tour. She will wrap up her residency on October 12.
While she did take the stage over an hour late, Madonna proved that she is still at the top of her game musically. The venue had a no cell phone policy, and rightfully so since it afforded people the opportunity to be in the moment, and none of the concert footage was leaked online.
She kicked off her set with the raw and unflinching "God Control," which had a neat orchestral arrangement to it. She immediately broke into the nonchalant "Dark Ballet" and "Human Nature". A fan-favorite song of the night was her throwback hit "Express Yourself," which was utterly fantastic.
In the second act, Madonna performed such smash hits as "Vogue" and "Papa Don't Preach," as well as the newer song "I Don't Search I Find" from her Madame X album; moreover, "American Life" was very relevant and significant in the times that we are living in today, and she did a glorious job on this tune.
The third act featured the album's lead single "Medellín," as well as the newer tracks "Crazy," "Killers Who Are Partying" and "Batuka." The inclusion of the melodically-stunning "La Isla Bonita" was an added treat. Madonna's voice is still resonant, crystalline and heavenly.
The highlight song of the night was "Frozen," which is this journalist's all-time favorite Madonna song in her illustrious catalog of hits. It was very expressive and the production was a true work of art. She closed her show with "Come Alive" and "Future."
The pop superstar returned for an encore that included a badass version of Tracy Young's remix of "Crave," which was sheer bliss. Her signature song "Like a Prayer" became the anthem for the night and it earned her a lengthy standing ovation. If that weren't enough, she returned for yet another encore, which included the empowering "I Rise," where she left her fans yearning for more.The Verdict
Overall, Madonna put on an amazing live show at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in the heart of Brooklyn. She is still the "Queen of Pop" and shows no signs of relinquishing that throne anytime soon. She is a true visionary, whose music and artistry gets bigger and better each year
The BAM Howard Gilman Opera House was a warm, intimate and beautiful venue for a concert of this caliber. Her live show garnered an A rating.
"I'm not here to be popular. I'm here to be free," Madonna declared to a packed, adoring audience on Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. It was the premiere of her Madame X tour, named after the album she released in June that she has said was influenced by the music in Lisbon, her adopted home. The show follows her decades of arena spectacles by scaling the same kind of razzle-dazzle — dancers! costumes! video! choir! — for a theater stage.
Unlike jukebox musicals or "Springsteen on Broadway," Madame X is a concert focusing on new songs and the present moment. In other words, Madonna is still taking chances. She will reach arena-size attendance in only a handful of venues on the eight-city tour, but with much longer engagements; the Gilman Opera House holds 2,098, and she booked 17 shows there, through Oct. 12. Onstage, "selling" a selfie Polaroid to an audience member who happened to be Rosie O'Donnell, she claimed, "I'm not making a dime on this show."
Concertgoers arrived to what was billed as a phone-free experience. Cellphones and smart watches were locked into bags at the door, though quickly unlocked afterward. It helped prevent online spoilers; it certainly removed the distractions of waving screens. (No photography was permitted, including press.)
As both album and show, "Madame X" is Madonna's latest declaration of a defiant, self-assured, flexible identity that's entirely comfortable with dualities: attentive parent and sexual adventurer, lapsed Catholic and spiritual seeker, party girl and political voice, self-described "icon" and self-described "soccer mom," an American and — more than ever — a world traveler.
Yes, she is 61, but her music remains determinedly contemporary, with the drum-machine sounds of trap, collaborations with hip-hop vocalists (Quavo and Swae Lee, shown on video) and the bilingual, reggaeton-flavored Latin pop sometimes called urbano (with the Colombian singer Maluma, also shown on video). The concert, with most of its music drawn from the "Madame X" album, was packed with pronouncements, symbols and enigmatic vignettes to frame the songs. Madonna often wore an eye patch with an X on it, no doubt a challenge to her depth perception as a dancer.
By the time Madonna had completed just the first two songs, she had already presented an epigraph from James Baldwin — "Artists are here to disturb the peace" — that was knocked out onstage by one of the concert's recurring figures, a woman (sometimes Madonna herself) at a typewriter.
Gunshots introduced "God Control," which moves from bitter mourning about gun deaths to happy memories of string-laden 1970s disco, while Madonna and dancers appeared in glittery versions of Revolutionary War finery, complete with feathered tricorn hats, only to be confronted by police with riot shields. "Dark Ballet" had Joan of Arc references, a montage of gothic cathedrals and scary priests, a synthesizer excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" and Madonna grappling with masked dancers, until cops pulled her off the piano she had been perched on. The signifiers were already piling up.
And there were more. Film-noir detectives pursued and interrogated Madonna in another disco-tinged song, "I Don't Search I Find"; "Crave," which warns, "My cravings get dangerous," flaunted a full-sized disco ball. A pair of robotic but sinuous dancers, with red lights for eyes, flanked Madonna as she sat at a piano for the ominous "Future," while the video screen filled with images of urban and environmental destruction. She surrounded herself with a choir of brightly robed women and geometric Arabic designs in "Come Alive," which used the metal castanets and triplet rhythm of Moroccan gnawa music to back her as, once again, Madonna's lyrics rejected unwanted opinions and restrictions.
The songs Madonna chose from her past were mostly exhortations and pushbacks, sometimes coupled with direct political statements. She sang part of "Papa Don't Preach," reversing its decision to "keep my baby," then spoke directly about supporting abortion rights. Dancing while surrounded by video imagery of pointing fingers, she revived "Human Nature," which already testified — a full 25 years ago — to Madonna's tenacity and determination to express herself uncensored. When it ended, her daughters Mercy James, Estere and Stella were onstage, and the singers and a full-throated audience shared an a cappella "Express Yourself."
The concert's unquestioned showstopper was "Frozen," a somber ballad from the 1998 album "Ray of Light" that offers healing: "If I could melt your heart, we'd never be apart." Madonna appeared as a tiny figure onstage, surrounded by giant video projections of a dancer moving from a self-protective clutch to a tentative, then joyful unfurling and back. It was her oldest daughter, Lourdes, affirming the family connection in movement.
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👑 @madonna opening night show last night at Brooklyn’s BAM theatre of MADAME❌.. the show was so good!! Congrats to the incredible Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. You were amazing!!! 🙌🏽 and congrats to everyone that was and is a part of making this show a reality.. a BIG special thanks to Sara Zambreno 👏🏼👏🏼 !!.. @jr @rosie @debimazar @officialspikelee @andersoncooper in the house .. #madameXtour
Since 2017 Madonna has lived in Lisbon, where her son David plays soccer, and she spoke about savoring the city's music: the Portuguese tradition of fado and music from Portugal's former empire, particularly from the Cape Verde Islands near Senegal. One of the show's most elaborate backdrops simulated a club in Lisbon.
But appreciation doesn't equal mastery. Madonna was backed by the Portuguese guitarra player Gaspar Varela, the grandson of the fado singer Celeste Rodrigues, in an earnest, awkward fado-rooted song, "Killers Who Are Partying" from the "Madame X" album; she also performed a Cape Verdean classic, "Sodade," made famous by Cesária Évora.
Reminding the audience that she had sung in Cape Verdean Creole and other languages, Madonna boasted, "This is a girl who gets around. This is a girl who does her homework." But in the songs themselves, she only sounded like a well-meaning tourist.
Madonna was more suited to the harder beat of "Batuka" a song based on the matriarchal, call-and-response Cape Verdean tradition of batuque. Backed by more than a dozen batuque drummers and singers — Orquestra Batukadeiras — and doing some hip-shimmying batuque moves, Madonna conveyed the delight of her discovery, even as the hand-played beat gave way to electronic percussion.
Forty-one musicians, dancers and singers appeared throughout the two-hour-plus show, which came with the same wardrobe changes as any of Madonna's large-scale extravaganzas (one, before "Vogue," was executed before the audience, shielded by a dressing table). The singer wasn't onstage for one of the most powerful dance moments, a break between acts when a row of performers convulsed gracefully at the lip of the stage to irregular breaths, set to a recording of Madonna intoning lyrics from "Rescue Me."
Madonna spoke to and with the audience repeatedly, taking advantage of the intimacy of the room to tell bawdy jokes, apologize for starting the show late and sip a fan's beer. But in songs and stage patter, she sometimes conflated self-realization and self-absorption with social progress. Contrasting freedom and slavery after "Come Alive," she announced that slavery "begins with ourselves," forgetting that the slave trade was not the same as being "slaves to our phones."
Yet with Madonna, the spirit is more about sounds and images than literalism. "I Rise," which ends both the album and the concert, samples a speech by Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. then goes on to some clumsy lyrics. But in a small theater, with a gospelly beat, raised fists, images of protests worldwide, a rainbow flag, and Madonna and her troupe parading up the aisle — close enough for fans to touch — there was no denying the conviction.
After so many rumors of an imaginary short show that could be dubbed Disarray of Light, Madame X turned out to be a thematically cohesive, at turns effusively warm and chillingly foreboding, triumph of her spirit, a near-total departure from her over-the-top arena and stadium tours, a show that clearly challenged her and invited her audience to reimagine the woman we so often see as an untouchable icon.
All my friends and I arrived between 7:30-8:00 p.m., having been urged to show up by 8:30 p.m. by our Ticketmasters. Figuring the venue's no-cameras policy (your phones are entombed in Yondr cases) and ridiculous ticketing warnings ("You can only use your phone as your ticket ... unless you have a hard ticket ... and you have to just remember where you're sitting!") would mean a clusterfuck of an entry process, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it all was. You just get in line, staffers give you a hard ticket of sorts once they see your seat on your phone, your phone is Yondr-swallowed, you go through a metal detector (be sure they do not put your Yondr in a bin with anyone else's as they're indistinguishable), then you're in.
It was crowded, but not a mob scene. It was a little scary that her dancer Marvin arrived through the lobby around 9:45 p.m., and it was funny to see Anderson Cooper slither in because while he was safe from selfies with no cellphones around, he was still a moving target that did not desire to be hit up for small talk.
Inside: It's alarming how close the front row is to the stage, and to Madonna. I had asked one of the frail-looking BAM employees if they truly felt confident they could hold the crowds at bay, and she told me Madonna would have security between the front row and the stage, which is only a few steps up. Instead, she had her main security guy we have all seen 100 times — and that's it, though I've been told there are hidden precautions. It just appears that the only thing keeping people from jumping onstage is the honor system, and fucking Roger Friedman was in the house! Honestly, I think I'd have let people use cellphones and spent more energy on hiring a wall of brutes to keep me safe, but I'm not Madame X, I'm Monsieur XY, and I guess I'm more fearful than Madonna is ... of people like me.
I didn't see a single camera or phone in the orchestra — not even Kevin Mazur or any house photographer, not even press. Zip. I later found out that people on upper levels were able to use the Yondr areas to unlock their phones and then go back to their seats without re-Yondring them. So whoever's in charge upstairs was asleep at the wheel, and there will likely be plenty of videos of the show from a distance. In truth, I don't buy the argument that not taking pictures means you're more present; it's simply a matter of preference.
That said, the one thing I noticed about my enjoyment of the show, sans phone or camera, was that I danced my ass off nonstop.
Still, depriving us of phones — Madonna wickedly teased us about it at one point, which made me laugh and proved that the decision was at least as much a power move as it was a desire for connection — didn't do away with the most annoying part of any concert: Being seated near a roaring drunk straight guy thrilled to be so close to Madonna as a show of status, but who also heckled her any time she talked politics. This is the guy who told my Asian friend he thought he was in The Hangover in spite of him looking nothing like Ken Jeong. I still can't believe he didn't rush the stage, but his sexy straight friend seemed to be a good influence. Then there was the straight Republican couple behind me trying to tell the gay couple next to them that Trump isn't bothered by gay people — even as the Trump Administration just this week denied a kid citizenship because he was born outside the U.S. to two gay parents who are U.S. citizens, arguing he was born out of wedlock! Fuck off. Trump may not care, but it's not in the sense that this doofus meant.
Anyway, in spite of well-documented sweating of the details all over her Instagram, the show kicked off at a relatively timely 10:45 p.m. (The most recent advertised time was 9:30 p.m., but the wait in this festive, small venue isn't bad at all and she — GASP! — apologized. The woman who is always on Grace Jones time joked, "I don't mean to do it ... I'll never do it again ..." before winking.)
One of my only criticisms of the show is it has an extremely weak opening. The words of James Baldwin are projected overhead as an old-fashioned typewriter bangs them out, a lone dancer moving to each stroke before being metaphorically gunned down. Then he does it again, all the same words and a few more. Then, he's gunned down ... and he does it again. Finally getting all the way through, the static kickoff gave way to a killer "God Control" that is close to what she gave us at Gay Pride, with lots of stomping Hustle choreography, though Madonna's pirate lewk is new — making her, one would imagine, an ahoy!-toy. (The eyepatch made appearances off and on — literally.)
Next is "Dark Ballet" (or, as that Good Morning America hussy would say, "Dark Bullay") which finds her showing off her Atelier Elizabeth threads while writhing on a piano before she is brutally arrested by riot police. This reminded me of #secretprojectrevolution.
Imprisoned in a recessed circle — "Get outta my cell!" she snaps at the pigs — she launches into a sizzling rendition of a song I thought I never needed to hear again but did: "Human Nature." Madonna is not sprinting across the stage anymore, but is as gesturally articulate and witty as ever, and when she walks herself upside down in the cell, it at once calls to mind the music video, a human peace sign and her Re-Invention tour headstand.
It bears mentioning that her twins popped up here, sauntering, bewigged and spitting out dialogue on command. I wonder if some will find their presence during a song littered with expletives worth condemning. But ... it's Madonna, so, yeah, they will. Daily Mail, take it away.
"I think my manager is here tonight," she cooed. (He was.) Then she hissed, "He just wants me to sing hits." Perhaps as a concession to the reality that we all want to hear not only new but old songs, she surprised even those of us who've been searching for and finding spoilers with a chunk of "Express Yourself" sung (perfectly!) a cappella. I think it's wise of her to cave and throw us pieces of classic songs like that. It totally satisfied my sweet tooth for the past.
Her hair guru Andy Lecompte, dressed as a doctor, escorted her behind a dressing mirror so that we (even we in the front) could only see Madonna's killer, fish-netted legs sticking out as she was given a not-so-quick-change onstage in real time. Ironically, she was talking about how she wanted to do a theater tour so as to connect with us — while shielded from us. Classical music played, so she joked that her legs were spread so we could hear Mozart from her pussy. "I'm a classic bitch," she confessed.
She did not indulge in any actual stand-up, but she did offer us the joke: "What do you call a man with a small penis? I don't know, because I've never called a man with a small penis."
Unveiled in her straight blonde wig, eyepatch and black trench, it was time for a snappy version of "Vogue" staged on stairs (a regular up-down suite) to remind people she made music prior to Madame X. It brought down the house, and nearly did bring down the upper levels, which swayed like background shots from 1974's Earthquake. (One of the dancers even had a Victoria Principal 'fro!)
This segued perfectly into "I Don't Search I Find," a song that's probably more fun to hear than it is a song that demands to be performed live. I did like the film noir, '40s-NYC projections, and the Burberry spy coats were chic.
Madonna then took a Polaroid of herself (earlier, a dancer pretended to take an upskirt shot of Madonna using a Polaroid — it was such a throwback I was waiting for her to whip out a Commodore 64 or to challenge us to a game of Pong) and teased that she would give it to one of us. Sadly, Rosie O'Donnell (other celebs spotted: Spike Lee and Debi Mazar) offered her $1,000 for it, so she got it. I guess the idea is we're all supposed to bid on the Polaroid each show, and Madonna will probably donate that cash to a charity, like she did with her dollar bills from the MDNA tour. I'm not sure I'd want it because modern Polaroids are incapable of taking sharp, clear, Warholian-wonderful snaps like the '80s Maripol versions, but bring your rent money if you want it.
Because we deserved it, she gave us a bit of "Papa Don't Preach," but pointedly sang, "I'm not keepin' my baby." (I shouted, "I'll take it!" — she gave me wonderful eye contact several times throughout, seeming to appreciate my energy.) She talked about how nine states are attempting to get Roe v Wade overturned and stressed the importance of a woman's autonomy.
"American Life" is probably her most hated Top 40 hit, but as she did at Gay Pride, she sang the hell out of it and it fits so well in this show. The staging included bloodied combat fatigues dropping from the ceiling, and it ended with her dancers solemnly carrying a coffin, presumably of a metaphorical dead soldier, across the stage as some sort of Portuguese dirge played.
Two female dancers peeled off from the pallbearers, engaging in a violent dance that ended with love.
One of the show's clear highlights came next: "Batuka." Coming to the stage from the aisles, the Batukadeiras brought us into a place of pure spiritual joy before Madonna appeared high above in a truly stunning navy costume (legs up to here, still) and a gorgeous brunette wig that moved with her. It's one of her best-ever tour looks, and she had a ball singing this song with the women.
Madonna recycled a bit of her sentiments about moving to Lisbon for a short speech at this point, which seemed to invite some riff-raff to shout out to her to get her attention, but she was on a roll and never became Bedtime Stories Pajama Party pissed off.
After asking me and the guy next to me to define "fado" — we choked, so I told her, "Teach us!" — she then sang a lovely fado song apparently called "Fado pechincha" as a tribute to the late, great Celeste Rodrigues (1923-2018), who she met while preparing her album. She did this with instrumental assistance from — who's that boy? — Rodrigues's great-grandson Gaspar Varela, a beautiful and talented kid who is this tour's Chris Finch.
Honestly, Madonna was at her very best with this and the other fado material. Her voice is rich and her adoration for the form bleeds through every note.
"Killers Who Are Partying" may be lyrically tone-deaf to those who refuse to believe people of privilege can imagine what it's like to be oppressed, but its execution on this tour is sterling. Madonna sings it astonishingly well, and her intention is much clearer in person than on the record — her caveat about knowing what she is and what she's not comes through loud and clear. It was a stunning rendition.
With "Crazy" (I think this may have been the point when she was standing on a piano being manually turned and I cringed, fearing she'd tumble), an improvised snippet of a song welcoming us to her fado club (great set, like a '50s Minnelli-directed musical), a bit of "La Isla Bonita" and a gorgeous morna (from Cape Verde) song entitled "Sodade" — one of her best vocals ever — the show felt like a true window into how Madonna sees Lisbon, and also how she views musical collaboration in a city she raves is filled with it.
"I see you, girl," she said around this point to someone in the audience, and I was thinking, "We hear you, girl."
For "Medellín," Madonna came directly in front of me, nearly hitting me with her riding crop, and did the little booty pop from the Grammys choreography with me! She then cha-chaed into the audience past me, turned around and came back ... and I, of course, discreetly touched her arm. I hope she doesn't bring me up on cha-cha-charges. It was a thrill, not gonna lie.
Okay, here is a hot tip: The next banter moment consisted of Madonna leaving the stage and plopping down next to a guy — James — in the front row (right side, stage left) for an extensive interview. James was brilliant! He said all the right things with just enough sass to be funny without upstaging or making her uncomfortable or turning her off. Madonna accidentally told a joke when she asked James if he were one of those mean fans on IG who says things like, "'I'm not gonna see your show unless you sing,' I don't know, 'Hard Candy.'" Nobody has ever made that threat, but it was still another example of her being cute and cuddly.
"Extreme Occident" found Madonna being wheeled around on pieces of her stairs, pushing the limits of repurposing, but it was around then that I was really focusing on how simplistic the set pieces are. Seeing human beings pushing the stairs around, no hydraulics, brought home the intimacy of the show. And it is brave, in the end, to be Madonna and not rely on the splashy stuff nearly as much as all of her other recent tours have. It underscored her musicality, and her gameness to dial it all in.
That said, I never want to hear about life being a circle again.
Probably the only true disappointment for me was not her dropping of "Easy Ride" nor her dropping of "You Must Love Me" — both of which had been rehearsed and discarded — but her relegation of "Rescue Me" to a Robert Longo-inspired modern dance number; the song only exists in her spoken-word voice-over, a major missed opportunity to provide longtime fans with a hands-free orgasm.
Spoke too soon! "Frozen" — delivered in her "I Rise" (Audio) music video look behind a transparent scrim — was better than sex, her best vocal on this song ever, and was enhanced by eye-popping black-and-white footage of her daughter Lola dancing. The interplay between solemn, stock-still Madonna and her fluidly sensual daughter's image was so striking; this will stick with me, and — I promise — you, for a long time.
A cellist introduces "Come Alive," one of her new album's catchiest numbers, and it was brought to life with seriously colorful robes galore. Never has Madonna been more geeked performing live than on this tour.
Stating she's not here to be popular, but to be free, Madonna sat at and played, albeit in a limited way, a grand piano as she de-reggaed (and vastly improved) "Future." Loved this new take, but not as much as her clubtastic airing of the Tracy Young remix of "Crave" — what a banger! Wham!-BAM, thank you, ma'am.
No Madonna concert is complete minus one of her best-ever songs, and this show's "Like a Prayer" — delivered in a monk robe — was a stripped-down satisfier, proof that Eurovision was a fluke and that she can still sing the heaven out of this religious experience of a tune.
The curtain closes only once at the end, so do not expect multiple encores. Instead, she ends on the relentlessly hopeful "I Rise." Spectacularly, after leading us through what feels like a lyrical revival meeting, Madonna simply marches right down the center of the orchestra, completely accessible to all with aisle seats for good-touch.
Sometimes, when Madonna does a lot of new material in a show, I can see how it may be offputting to casual fans. I defy anyone with an open mind and open ears to begrudge her the desire to air these new gems. With just enough nods to her past, Madonna is too busy reveling in the present and making plans to go into the future to get mired down by deep cuts and too many of yesteryear's hits.
There is always next time for a hits tour.
Madame X is one of the biggest gambles Madonna has ever taken as a live performer (oh, I take it all back, what if she sang "Gambler"?), and it's one that pays off in the form of a show that perfectly showcases her musicality, her curiosity, her understanding of how to hold an audience and her resolve to be an artist who instigates, who "disturbs the peace," who leads and whose legacy is always whatever comes next.
It turns out Madonna — the queen of re-invention — is human. She admitted last night during the first performance of her Madame X show at Brooklyn's Howard Gilman Opera house: "The one thing I need is sleep. I'm tired." She added that she could use a nap.
But the 61 year old pop icon didn't show any signs of weariness last night as she launched this ambitious, complex production. The good news about Madonna's Madame X show is that there is no bad news. Not really. So everyone can relax. There's no incentive to throw tomatoes.
Quite the opposite: I was impressed, and I think anyone who stops into the Gilman will be surprised to find Madonna, in a stripped down setting, is actually real and just a celebrity hologram. She's very endearing in an intimate venue. Also considering that this performance of "Madame X" was the very first, you have to give her credit. She's producing a Broadway show in progress.
Indeed, if we come back to "Madame X" in a month, it's going to be even more together, which isn't to say it's not a compelling two hour and fifteen minute entertainment now. But right now "Madame X" is like several Broadway shows happening at once. Most of it works, some of it doesn't. It needs time to gel. The pieces are good, but they don't all fit together yet. (The sets are Broadway-level, even better, with terrific lighting. The staging runs from elaborately ornamental to elegantly minimalist. There are excellent video projections, too.)
What we get theme wise are more than a few things: Madonna's lifelong grappling with Catholicism; her adventures in Lisbon as a "soccer mom," as she says; her discovery in Portugal of that country's music and that of Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa; political Madonna, who is advocating for LGBTQ, women's rights, abortion rights, and gun control. Plus modern dance, jazz and ballet, and even a dance video from Madonna's daughter, Lourdes. That's a lot of themes.
A lot of this is set to showcase songs from the "Madame X" album, which didn't sell well and didn't come off well when it arrived. Surprisingly, those songs have been made into convincing theatrical pieces. You see, Madonna is not performing her greatest hits. If you're coming to the Gilman for "Like a Virgin," you're in the wrong place. (There are financial reasons, too, for ditching the early hits– she didn't write them and she's probably tired of paying those songwriters.)
This doesn't mean there aren't nods to the 80s Madonna. Early in the show there's a lovely a cappella moment of "Express Yourself." You will also hear "Papa Don't Preach," "Frozen," "La Isla Bonita," and, very successfully, "Vogue."
Last night's show started an hour late, at 10:30pm, but Madonna did apologize and explain that later. There are other details that I'll explore later this week in a real review. Last night, Rosie O'Donnell and Debi Mazar, her good friends, showed up to give support, and Rosie–who received cheers from the audience– got be part of a little "business." The audience loved it.
And that audience– a group of people from Asia had flown here, and used Madonna's lateness for a nap. The woman behind me came from Paris. There was a crowd from Brazil.
(Also be warned: your phone is locked into an airtight container upon arrival. It must be unlocked at the end of the show. No photos, no videos, no social media. Hence, no photo to go with this story.)
By the time you get to the last number, it's well worth it. "Like a Prayer" finishes the show proper and leaves everyone on a high. But again, I think Madonna is doing some interesting work here. She's trying pull off something much tougher than her arena or stadium shows, and you can already see the payoffs. She's making a connection with the audience while ideas are settling in. The fans will love to watch it, and out of this will evolve a butterfly. I'd be first in line to return.↑ Back to top of page