Live Review: Madonna, Time Warner Cable Arena (11/15/2012)

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Madonna
Time Warner Cable Arena
Nov. 15, 2012


If you walked away from the Madonna spectacle Thursday at Time Warner Cable Arena with only the image of the 54-year-old pop icon's ultra-fit ass in your head, then you don't know jack about Madonna.

Sure, she flashed that ass. But nothing about the current MDNA Tour is wholesale gratuitous. Nothing is all that surprising, either, if you've kept up with news of Madonna's other stops on the tour, which kicked off in Tel Aviv this past May.

In one of several disturbing but exhilarating sequences, a hard and defeated-looking Madonna lay at the edge of a massive stage that extended halfway across the arena floor - the same place that two months ago saw chipper, smartly dressed Democratic delegates cheering the nomination of President Barack Obama. Clad in an all-black stripper's outfit, complete with thong and shiny stilettos, Madonna crawled and slithered about the floor in an ominous sendup of her notorious early performance of "Like a Virgin" at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. Taunting audience members gathered at the lip of the stage, slightly disheveled but revealing a still-firm bum and muscular arms and legs, she sang - slowly, menacingly, in a minor key and over somber orchestration - a radically reworked "Virgin."

Madonna was begging for money; she wanted cash, she said - dollars, big dollars. And she was getting it. As hundreds of bills showered the stage, she slithered about, completely decontextualizing her old "Material Girl" persona as she gathered up each one. "If you're going to look at the crack of my ass," she spat, "you better raise some cash."

The goal of the sequence - which came more than halfway into a two-hour show that ran from the dark violence of "Gang Bang" to the exuberance of her full-chorus treatment of "Like a Prayer" - was to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York City, the town that gave Madonna her start more than 30 years ago. But she wasn't going to just place donation buckets in the arena lobby. No, Madonna was going to do it Madonna's way - theatrically, provocatively, uncomfortably, in a scenario that was designed to polarize the audience.


And polarize, she did: Madonna's "Like a Virgin" sequence was one of about three that saw a few audience members get up from their seats and leave the arena. The first came early in the show, during the tour's much-talked-about bloody song sequence - "Girl Gone Wild," "Revolver" and "Gang Bang" - that evolved from a choreographed gunfight with men in a faux hotel room to soldiers in what appeared to be an Abu Ghraib torture setting. Another came during the singer's extended commentary in support of President Obama. That one got lots of cheers but also a palpable chorus of boo's.

MADONNA'S AUDIENCE in 2012 - fans mostly in their late 30s, 40s and 50s - may be an "oldies" crowd, but she's not yet prepared to be an "oldies" artist. Only a handful of songs - including "Virgin," a snippet of "Papa Don't Preach," "Express Yourself," "Vogue," and "Like a Prayer" - were household-name hits. And she reworked a number of those in ways that made them sound initially unfamiliar. The one bone she tossed her aging fans decked out in "Lucky Star"-era garb was a cheesy flash-back clip showing images from several of her video hits over the years.

But if you come to a Madonna show expecting just hits, you'll be as disappointed as a casual Bob Dylan fan who expects his concerts to include faithful versions of "Blowin' in the Wind" or "Mr. Tambourine Man." Madonna has continued to grow, not just as a musical performer but as a musical stage actor, deconstructionist and reconstructionist. Her MDNA Tour is not a concert - it's a theater event, complete with concepts and routines that range from well-thought-out to somewhat abstruse. The singer is as committed as ever to making statements and being provocative - that's her stock-in-trade, after all - and her non-hit material is every bit as adventurous and challenging as any of her hits. More so, in many cases.

Does Madonna use Auto-Tune? Yes. She uses it well. Does she lip-synch? Yes, of course she does. One couldn't possibly perform the huge, physically challenging routines she does with her parade of beautiful-people dancers without lip-synching. Does she hold a guitar, using it not so much as an instrument but as a prop to complete the concept of a specific piece? Yes. And if you are dogmatically opposed to Auto-Tune, lip-synching and musical instruments as props, you ought not be at a show that utilizes these effects.


NOT THAT Madonna failed to deliver anything to her hit-seeking fans in Charlotte. She dressed up in her Super Bowl cheerleader's outfit for "Express Yourself," as '60s-like pop art images of women in traditional and unconventional roles flashed on the giant screen; she struck all her memorable poses during "Vogue," offered a steamy and adventurous remixed version of "Justify My Love," and brought out a rainbow coalition of a chorus for "Like a Prayer."

In between all that, though, was tons of recent material that ranged from smoky acoustic ballads to heavy African percussion, from the synthesized power guitars of "Turn Up the Radio," from her latest album MDNA, to the Indian sitars and percussion in the raga-based "I'm a Sinner." The latter song was a particular highlight, as it found provocative Madge chanting even more giddily, perhaps, than ever during her first performance in the buckle of the Bible Belt: "I'm a sinner and I like it that way."

You either like it that way, too - or you don't. There's no in between.


Setlist
Gregorian Chant Virgin Mary Intro
Girl Gone Wild (with samples from "Material Girl," "Give It 2 Me")
Revolver
Gang Bang
Papa Don't Preach
Hung Up
I Don't Give A

Best Friend (video interlude)
Express Yourself
Give Me All Your Luvin'
Turning Up the Hits (video interlude)
Turn Up the Radio
Open Your Heart
Masterpiece

Justify My Love (video interlude)
Vogue
Candy Shop
Human Nature
Like a Virgin
Love Spent

Nobody Knows Me (video interlude)
I'm Addicted
I'm a Sinner
Like a Prayer
Celebration

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