Seven highlights from Madonna’s concert at Madison Square Garden

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Madonna has spent the year in a fog of bad press: leaked tracks from her new album, Rebel Heart, false rumors of low sales, relentless Internet debate about her age and behavior. Last night at Madison Square Garden, in the first show of her three-concert NYC engagement, she easily cleared the air with an eclectic and electrifying performance. After more than three decades, Madonna remains an authoritative diva, far from the end of her reign; she’s rarely seemed more natural and relaxed. Here are the night’s most memorable moments.

1. “Body Shop”/“True Blue”: The first section of the concert is devoted to an intense, goth pageant of songs from Rebel Heart (plus “Deeper and Deeper” from 1992’s Erotica), exploring sexual and spiritual themes that Madonna has been navigating for decades. It’s cool—and hot—but the audience lets out a collective sigh of pleasure when she switches to a bright, ’50s-greaser vibe for “Body Shop” from Rebel Heart. That’s followed by a honey-sweet croon of the title track from 1986’s True Blue, with Madonna accompanying herself on the ukulele and radiating country warmth.

2. “Devil Pray”: An instant classic from the new album, with soothing chords reminiscent of the best tracks from 2003’s underrated American Life, this song quickly inspires the audience to sing along with its earworm chorus:

And we can do drugs and we can smoke weed and we can drink whiskey
Yeah, we can get high and we can get stoned
And we can sniff glue and we can do E and we can drop acid
Forever be lost with no way home

It’s a Dr. Feelgood testament to the strength of her current work.

3. “Like A Virgin”: Halfway through the show, the opening notes of the iconic title track from Like A Virgin (1984) begin to play, and Madonna is suddenly alone on stage in a short-sleeved gingham blouse, looking like the girl next door. It’s a stunning transformation. What follows is a masterfully simple song-and-dance number, performed without backup. It’s unlike any previous version, and it boldly illuminates the freshness at the song’s core and the attention-commanding frankness of her performing it.

4. “Music”: At one time, it was rumored Madonna would star in the film version of the Broadway musical Chicago. The hit title track from Music (2000) gives her the chance to deliver that Jazz Age–style razzmatazz in a shimmery black flapper dress adorned with thousands of Swarovski crystals. “Music” is a natural fit for this showbiz approach, and Madonna and her dancers bring down the house.

5. ’80s Hits Medley: As happy as the audience is to hear the early hits “Dress You Up,” “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star,” this number is an unpolished misfire. Posing as a ragtag crew of players, Madonna and her ensemble call to mind an amalgamation of The Muppet Show and the Star Wars cantina. There’s too much going on, but they seem to be having so much fun that it’s hard not to smile.

6. “La Vie en Rose”: Madonna sings Edith Piaf? Oui, oui! Madonna accompanies herself on guitar and delivers a gorgeous acoustic vocal in French. Her rich, plaintive rendition suggest that she could probably pull off a whole set built around just her singing, without all the bells and whistles (and crosses and stripper poles and hotties and hydraulics).

7. “Rebel Heart”: Late in the show, Madonna sits on a stool at the end of her runway platform and admits to feeling nostalgic: She first played Madison Square Garden 30 years ago. Instead of launching into another oldie, though, she passionately sings her new album’s title track, imbuing it with an anthem-like quality. It has the feel of a personal statement, like Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—the midcareer calling card of another music legend who conquered Madison Square Garden in his 50s and who remained an icon throughout era after era, shapeshifting to thrive.

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