Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Some Madge-ic Moments, but Latest Madonna Extravaganza Too Uneven to Feel Truly Momentous -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

United Center, Chicago
September 28, 2015

I don't worship Madonna, and haven't consistently considered myself much of a fan, but I admire her enough as an entertainer to have now seen her on each of her last 5 tours, including Monday night at the UC on the Rebel Heart outing.

A good part of initially wanting to see her in concert coincided with my prolific theatergoing, as wholeheartedly embracing musical theater not only sparked an interest in Madonna's tightly scripted multimedia extravaganzas--including a plethora of dancers, acrobats, props, video imagery, costumes, messages and a few musicians--but eliminated any psychological parochialism about seeing a pop star amidst my typical spate of rock bands.

The first time I saw Madonna in 2004, I was considerably impressed and entertained, with subsequent shows--including this one--being more hit or miss.

Especially in hearing "Madge" express to Howard Stern earlier this year how passionately she plans every moment of her concert presentations, and how obsessive she is about the quality of her performance and the entire production--the start of this tour was postponed due to all the moving parts not yet congealing into place--I can't help appreciate her grandiose creative ambitions, perhaps fueled in part to justify the roughly $400 she charges for top tickets (I didn't pay nearly that much for my upper balcony perch).

While it was nice to see Madonna considerably more amiable, at times even breezy, than the rigid, almost robotic demeanor that--in adhering to her tightly orchestrated thematic conceits--greatly dampened her 2012 concert (by far the most disappointing of the five I've seen), with all due respect and regard for her estimable efforts, I kinda think tries too hard.

For even though she descended to the stage in a cage (while singing "Iconic") to open the show, pole danced on a cross with scantily clad "nuns," sang "Body Shop" from the hood of an onstage car, re-enacted the Last Supper then gyrated upon the table, had an army of dancers in extravagant costumes engaging in numerous nifty maneuvers, etc., etc., most of the show's best moments were its simplest ones.

With Madonna alone on the main floor-spanning catwalk (often playing guitar), renditions of the new "Ghosttown" and "Rebel Heart," as well as a cover of Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" were really quite lovely. 

An acoustic rendition of "True Blue" was--to paraphrase Kevin Costner's famously derided comment in 1990's Truth or Dare documentary--pretty "neat," and while I think Madonna needlessly and heedlessly modified the tempo of "Like a Virgin" and  other '80s gems ("Dress You Up," "Material Girl"), it benefited from a lack of bombastic accoutrements.

While whatever statements Madonna was trying to make, and likely my overall enjoyment of the show, were hindered by a group of iniebrieted women incessantly yammering behind me--I surmise they were suburban moms on girls night out reliving their high school days--any cogent messaging was almost entirely lost on me. Though that it related to sex and/or religion is now a routine matter of course.

Furthering my losses in the "random rudeness ruining the experience" concertgoing lottery, another nearby nutjob was so vociferously disruptive and belligerant, three security guards had to come take her away. (Perhaps she suffered from "Borderline" personality disorder, though that early hit wasn't played.)

With most of the extreme visuals accompanying new songs early in the set, Madonna's 2-hour plus
performance--beginning near 9:45 after a DJ set by Michael Diamond that could serve as the soundtrack for my arrival in hell--got off to a somewhat challenging start, and the show felt uneven throughout. 

And in terms of sound, vision and thematic cohesion, it failed to coalesce nearly as potently as U2's latest, similarly ambitious multimedia tour presentation.

I respect Madonna for aiming for greater artistry than merely to run through a Vegas-style greatest hits set, and though 10 songs from the underselling Rebel Heart seems a bit much, several--including "Living for Love"--came off quite well. (I don't share her fascination with the word "bitch," as in "Bitch I'm Madonna" and "Unapologetic Bitch," but won't, well complain, about it too much.)

In looking at the setlist, it'd be easy for almost anyone to name some hits Madonna didn't play ("Lucky Star," "Like a Prayer," "Into the Groove," "Ray of Light"), but she seems to mix in different classics on each tour, and not only did gems like "La Isla Bonita," "Music" and "Holiday" sound swell, compared to some past tours she was rather liberal in performing big songs (although often reconfigured).

I hope more devout fans loved every minute of it, and far be it from me to tell one of the world's most successful artists--and greatest provacateurs--how to do her job.

But while appreciating the elaborate shows she stages--still with remarkable energy at age 57--I think I've come to like Madonna best when she simply sings.

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