Madonna packs heat
No A/C, late start puts crowd in sultry mood— but the diva delivers
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published June 15, 2006, 1:30 AM CDT
Madonna made her fans sweat, literally, as she opened her four-night stand Wednesday at the United Center.
This was both bad and good.
Bad, because she made concertgoers who paid as much as $380 a ticket (plus service charges) wait 75 minutes past the starting time of 7:30 p.m. before taking the stage. And though there was no official comment from tour promoters or the singer's camp, the air-conditioning was undoubtedly shut off—apparently at the finicky Madonna's request. Before a note was played, fans already were perspiring like they'd just had a workout with the diva's dance choreographer.
For the rest of the show, the sweat was earned, and the earlier slights receded into the back beat of a relentless four-to-the-floor kick-drum. This was Retro Madonna, the first tour in memory where the singer looked back instead of pushing her music and presentation forward. And this meant a return to her dance-club roots, with nods to those quintessential '70s icons ABBA (referenced in "Hung Up"), Donna Summer ("Future Lover") and "Saturday Night Fever"-era John Travolta, with a white-suited Madonna mashing up the Tramps' "Disco Inferno" and her own "Music."
The two-hour show was split into four segments on a multi-tiered stage that shot three runways into the audience, layered high-definition video screens and hatched a giant mirror ball, from which the singer emerged in top-hatted horsewoman's regalia. As usual, the production values were pricey and mostly impeccable, with a couple of would-be here's-where-your-380-bucks-went eye-poppers: a ribald S&M routine with a riding crop and a rotating saddle, and a somewhat underwhelming rendering of "Live to Tell" on a mirrored cross, complete with a crown of thorns. Let's face it, now that everyone from Kanye West to Madonna way back in the '80s has flirted with this particular brand of sacrilege, crucifixion just isn't what it used to be in the Shock and Awe department.
But the true visual center of the show was the singer herself. Whether in tandem with her young, athletic retinue of dancers or sharing the spotlight only with a chair, she was a physical marvel. She's developed into a more sensual and elegant performer than ever; remarkable, really, for a 47-year-old woman who seems to develop more stamina and suppleness as she matures. Though musically the concert was hit and miss, in part because it was so heavily weighted with songs from her latest album, "Confessions on a Dancefloor," she was never less than watchable.
Though Madonna's voice still isn't anything special, it was more than adequate for the task at hand: burnishing those big choruses, especially when supported by piped-in backing vocals, and dishing attitude by the truckload.
She toughened up "I Love New York" with her electric rhythm-guitar playing, a feature that surfaced on her previous tour to less impressive effect. Here she took some shots at a certain Texan while playing the chords from the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog."
When certain audience members displeased her with their lack of enthusiasm, she called them out: "Show some effort!"
Even this moment of apparent spontaneity, played for laughs, was choreographed; she's been singling out some unfortunate fans at every tour stop.
Nothing in Madonna's world, at least on stage, is less than expertly managed. And it gave most of the show the air of a somewhat joyless Big Production; like being taken for a ride by a ritzy escort service.
A good time may have been had by all, but no real connection was made.
The one exception arrived during the show's most self-serious segment, in which Madonna took on everything from child abuse to AIDs in Africa with the kind of broad-stroke panache that might've made even Bono blush.
Yet when two male dancers played out a tortured ballet during "Forbidden Love," the intent was unmistakable, and moving. Madonna has been a gay icon since she emerged in the New York City clubs more than 20 years ago, and with gay rights once again under attack, her gesture did not go unnoticed. As Madonna extended a hand of solidarity to the dancers, a blast of appreciative cheers filled the arena.
She will always be a diva, but she's never forgotten the community that made her one in the first place.