July 17, 2012
Hyde Park, London
Not known for subtlety, Madonna rolled into London on the jetstream of controversy trailing from her previous MDNA live shows: namely her excessive firearm use, flesh-flashing in Italy and superimposing a swastika over Marine Le Pen’s face in a video montage in Paris. Anyone thinking that Madonna is past her best should parallel the current controversies with the Blonde Ambition era, where she was nearly arrested in Toronto for merely simulating masturbation.
In a beautiful and theatrical opening sequence, a huge incense lantern swings from the ceiling and red-cloaked monks ring a church bell against a backdrop of a huge crucifix adorned with the letters MDNA. As the crucifix opens, a confessional box appears on the stage and we hear the lady of the hour give her ‘Act Of Contrition’. In a breathtaking entrance and set-piece, Madonna appears to smash the glass with a rifle whilst wearing a catsuit and thigh high boots any Tarantino heroine would kill for. She takes to the floor with the now disrobed clergymen, and a banging rendition of the Benassi produced stomper ‘Girl Gone Wild’ electrifies the stage. Using the underrated ‘Revolver’ to segue into the pitch-dark, dubstep number ‘Gang Bang’, the gun-toting badass takes a swig from a bottle of bourbon in a sleazy motel room, about to embark on a murder spree involving some visceral imagery and fantastically choreographed moves.
As the iconic strings of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ reverberate around Hyde Park, the crowd goes into hysteria, the musical chameleon writhing around the stage for her rendition of the ‘80s track. As some henchmen appear and cast her in chains, she is then carried off and we hear the riffs of ‘Hung Up’ underpinned by dramatic church bells with vocoder vocals against a stripped down, abridged version of the dancefloor anthem. Madonna then wows the crowd with an impressive, albeit assisted, walk on the slacklines with her captors, before bursting into an aggressive rendition of ‘I Don’t Give A ****’, the crowd going wild when Nicki Minaj appears on the video screen to deliver her fantastic middle-eight rap.
As our vixen disappears through the floor, the tone has formidably been set for a cathartic, ambiguous, sexually-charged, tongue-in-cheek, preachy, vibrant, emotional evening, all of which typify a Madonna concert.
The mood lightens with the fantastic ‘Express Yourself’, with a sly dig at Lady Gaga where she incorporates lyrics from ‘Born This Way’, but the joke backfires when Madonna all too seriously sings ‘She’s Not Me’. We get that Gaga was inspired by this song, but the point is beaten to a bitter death and one must not forget how Madonna has been “influenced” by other artists over the past three decades. I was left longing for the days where the Queen of Pop once supported her junglings by draping their names across her T-shirts.
Another low point of the show is a risible, bawdy performance of album filler ‘Candy Shop’. These blips, however, are rebalanced by a wondrous folky Basque version of ‘Open Your Heart’, featuring Basque trio Kalakan. ‘Vogue’ is executed beautifully with a stunning self-referencing Gaultier outfit bringing that conical bra smack bang into the noughties.
‘Like A Prayer’ is as superlative as ever, with a huge choir adding to the song’s emotional punch. The ethereal ‘I’m A Sinner’ features some outstanding choreography and the latest album’s stand-out track ‘I’m Addicted’ has Madonna belting out the lyrics with some truly inspired Japanese dance compositions.
One of the show’s two highlights is a formidable performance of ‘Celebration’ with some sensational, vibrant visuals. Madonna truly lets go and dances around like a woman 30 years her junior on a plinth, more than keeping up with her backing dancers, in a fantastic closer to the show. The show’s stopper, though, is a thoroughly genuine and passionate reinterpretation of ‘Like A Virgin’, although the dramatic and loaded impact suffers at the hands of the Westminster’s noise abatement legislation. I must admit the show would be far better suited to a more intimate, indoor venue.
People will inevitably criticise Madonna for not kow-towing to the tiresome nostalgics amongst us and not doing a Greatest Hits tour-by-numbers. Those pining for usual stompers ‘Music’, ‘Holiday’ and ‘Ray Of Light’ should leave their longing at the gates. The setlist is a 50/50 split of MDNA tracks and reworked classics with a welcome smattering of more obscure tracks like ‘Cyberraga’.
Much like the self-referential MDNA, the show has elements of past personas and the darker, edgier vixens present in some of the MDNA tracks. A very cathartic journey, MDNA is a brilliantly executed show with some overly preachy moments rebuffed by some sheer, visceral wonder and some stomping renditions. Madonna continues to show the pretenders how it’s done and has just set the bar even higher.