For an artist who rarely looks back creatively, Madonna was in a particularly wistful mood during her Madison Square Garden concert on Wednesday (Sept. 16) night, the first of three NYC dates on her Rebel Heart Tour.
“I’m feeling very nostalgic tonight,” Madonna said (twice, actually). “I played Madison Square Garden 30 years ago. That’s crazy.” When she trailed off for a moment, you almost thought she was lost in sentimental reverie. But as always, Madonna was laser-focused on the present, even while reminiscing. “You were there?” she asked a fan in the front row who had been talking to her. “Then I gotta give you a kiss.” For the record, a Madonna-on-fan kiss is a controlled affair: She kissed her fingers and touched the fan’s forehead, like a messiah gracing her faithful follower with one touch.
Nostalgia aside, Madonna’s restless creative spirit is on full display on the Rebel Heart Tour. Refusing to coast by playing faithful, familiar live renditions of her hits, Madge recast a number of her classics in different musical molds, with mostly positive results.
Strapping on a guitar, she skuzzed up “Burning Up” to hard rock heights and turned “True Blue” into a ukulele sing-along. For “Like a Virgin,” she lost the original instrumentation, her backup dancers and most of her clothes while turning her breakthrough hit into a sparse, Pharrell-esque jam.
In a lengthy nod to her Spanish-speaking audience, Madonna delivered a Latin-tinged medley of “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star.” The maracas might have been a little much, but the crisp Spanish guitar successfully made the songs sound newly organic. And while there weren’t as many French speakers in attendance at MSG, Madonna nodded to her Gallic fans with a surprisingly full-voiced version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” (Was it as good as Lady Gaga’s recent live “La Vie en Rose” cover? That’s a topic for opposing fan groups to viciously discuss in the comments section.)
Later in the show, Madonna began “Music” as a Jazz Age ballad before kicking the No. 1 hit into banger mode. The presence of “Music” was an effective reminder that while some compulsive naysayers tsk the Queen of Pop for trend chasing with Diplo, she brought techno to the pop mainstream years before EDM was a ubiquitous term.
As always, Madonna will never be everything to everyone. Some were undoubtedly let down to see her make it through the “Vogue” spoken word section during “Holy Water” without segueing into the full song — and to see the lights come up without any “Like a Prayer.”
But the classic tracks Madonna did pull out were judiciously selected, with attention paid to material rarely performed on her live tours. An acoustic “Who’s That Girl?” (not seen on a Madonna tour in nearly 30 years), a pumping “Deeper and Deeper” (absent from her setlist for 11 years) and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” (which segued out of new song “HeartBreak City”) were all resurrected to huge applause.
Speaking of resurrection, Catholic themes occupied a sizable portion of her stage show, as you would expect — but always with the Ciccone wink. There was a bacchanalian Last Supper, nuns gyrating on stripper polls and famous faces from Renaissance religious paintings projected onscreen during the aforementioned “Vogue” roll call.
Aside from the stunning Minotaur-filled “Living for Love,” the most effective new song in her Rebel Heart Tour arsenal was “Body Shop.” While the song was light to the point of forgettable on the album, its low-key, affable sound worked to the choreography’s advantage as Madonna teased and flirted her way through a stage filled with tires, muscle cars and muscle men.
“My grandma always said, ‘If it’s got tits or tires, it’s going to give you trouble,'” Madonna said in a faux Southern accent after the song. “Sorry, I know I’m not as funny as Amy Schumer, but I’m trying.”
Schumer, incidentally, killed her opening set (last night was her first of three opening slots for Madonna in NYC). Repeatedly mocking the flowering falsehood that it’s a new Golden Era for women in Hollywood while still making jokes about the First Lady taking a hot load, Schumer’s ability to pivot between the bawdy and the incisive proved the perfect fit for a Madonna opener.
“I thought I was gonna bomb so hard for months,” Schumer said when her set was over. “This is the best feeling ever.”
That feeling might’ve been one-upped (or quashed?) later on in the evening when Madonna brought Amy out during “Unapologetic Bitch,” bent her over and literally kicked her ass (in addition to pretending to penetrate it). Schumer was ecstatic and surprisingly rhythmic while dancing with Madonna onstage, but the Queen couldn’t let her go without some hazing.
Before Schumer left the stage, Madonna put a sock puppet on Amy’s hand and made it tell her, “Hi Amy — I’m a sock, bitch!” Waiting a few beats for an actual joke to follow, Schumer exploded into confused laughter when it became clear that was pretty much all Madge had to offer with the skit. Madonna might be good at changing creative lanes, but her attempt at improv was like switching lanes by means of rolling out of a moving car.
When the show came to a triumphant close with “Holiday,” New York’s favorite adopted daughter paraded around in an American flag while her dancers — dressed for a Gatsby-style rager at this point — paraded about with jubilant relief. It was clear they felt the rush of owning Madison Square Garden and relished it. Madonna, on the other hand, kept her composure. Clearly, failure to dominate MSG on Wednesday night was never an option for her — just like failure to dominate New York City was never an option for Madonna more than 30 years ago.