There’s a long tradition in popular culture of artists who pushed the envelope and redefined the boundaries, but when it comes to pop music, few performers have so gleefully filled the role of iconoclast as Madonna. To say that she’s been a groundbreaker for female music stars would be an understatement, and a short list of current stars who were largely influenced or inspired by her would have to include Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Pink, The Spice Girls and Nicki Minaj.
But the prototype herself was onstage at TD Garden in Boston Saturday night, and her two-hour extravaganza didn’t disappoint. Madonna may have ventured afield into acting, writing, and assorted charity work, but first and foremost she’s a pop star. In fact, to be more precise, she has always taken immense pleasure in being a “pop tart,” thematically pushing up against the societal norms of sex and proper behavior for young ladies, and not least of which, teasing her conservative Catholic upbringing.
Part and parcel of Madonna’s musical identity has been a virtually unbroken string of dance-pop hits, whether they be updated disco, hip-hop-flavored r&b, or techno-driven beat-heavy epics. Her songs are frequently ridiculously infectious dance numbers, and her lyrics have that knack of getting your attention, whether she’s happily being outrageous or making a serious point about empowerment – and sometimes she’s capable of doing both simultaneously. Controversy may be her middle name, but nobody ever accused Madonna of being boring, and Saturday’s 23-song romp surely was anything but boring, and hardly predictable.
Overall impressions of this “Rebel Heart Tour” would have to center on the sheer spectacle of the night, where you could spend a thousand words describing each song, because the staging and dance routines, mini-dramas and quick and frequently humorous sidelights, were so intricate. But there were also a lot of musical styles covered, and if most of the music was dance-club friendly, Madonna proved herself to be an omniverous and laudably versatile stylist.
To perhaps extract a quick soundbite, Madonna’s evening ranged all the way from roaring techno on “Bitch I’m Madonna” to pretty mainstream rock ’n’ roll on “Body Shop” to almost Celtic folk-rock on “Devil Pray” to traditional Spanish on “La Isla Bonita” to a quite lovely acoustic cover of Edith Piaf’s signature tune, “La Vie En Rose,” where the singer’s ukulele, and a very low-key accordion was the only accompaniment. That’s a lot of musical variety, and Madonna, 57, and her four-piece backup band, two backup vocalists, and 14 dancers delivered it all with panache.
The word before the concert was that it was not quite a sellout, but it was hard to find any empty seats by the time Madonna appeared, and the throng of about 17,000 fans roared as soon as the lights went down. The large elevated main stage at one end of the arena, led down to a catwalk that stretched the length of the TD Garden floor. The far end of the catwalk ended in a heart-shaped stage, while the middle of the catwalk had a smaller circular stage, and there were openings in all the stages, so that dancers, or the star herself, could pop up from below at any time, or, at a song’s end, disappear.
With a Madonna video playing on the huge screens behind the stage the night began with 10 dancers costumed as medieval executioners in gold and black, and carrying large gold pikes ending in crosses, fanning out over the catwalk, while four female dancers in slightly different outfits appeared on the main stage. While the sound of “Iconic,” the cut from Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” album wafted through the night, including its Mike Tyson spoken word snippet on the wages of fame, the star appeared from overhead. Encased in a steel cage, Madonna was lowered to the center of the main stage, where the female dancers released her. As she joined the dance troupe, singing all the while, she engaged with the executioners, even linking her knees over one of those staffs as the men carried her, upside down. Somehow, by the tune’s end, it seemed that Madonna had conquered and tamed the ominous cadre of executioners, and she certainly had the Boston crowd won over.
For “Bitch I’m Madonna” the staging included four female dancers dressed as geisha girls, while a late segment had the male dancers engaged in mock martial arts combat, while Nicki Minaj, who sings on the recorded version, appeared for her parts on the video screens. Madonna donned an electric guitar to lead the charge on the funky march “Burning Up.”
The segment that tweaked Catholicism last night began with “Holy Water,” which, to summarize, Madonna seems to equate with female sexuality. That number began with four female dancers dressed as nuns, but nuns with bikini tops and white hot pants. Madonna ended up dancing and interacting with the dancers, and a fair interpretation would be that redemption can be found in sensual congress. Somehow that tune ended with Madonna lying atop a Last Supper table, where she began the acoustic-centered “Devil Pray,” as the video screens showed clips of people being baptized, and again she engaged and appeared to subdue the male dancers with her very femininity.
We should also add that, despite all those plot twists, Madonna was singing passionately throughout. Everything appeared to be live and without noticeable vocal enhancement, and with so many of the tunes turning into mini-pop-operas, Madonna’s voice was in top form all night.
Madonna took three breaks during the night, and it was done so cleverly fans may not have noticed. While one of her hits was being played, and the dancers were performing all sorts of feats, Madonna would simply not be there, although her recorded voice was being heard.
Moving along, “Body Shop” featured dancers dressed as mechanics, and a set piece built around the front end of what seemed to be a 1965 Ford. That tune was another one centered on acoustic guitar, and had a definite rock foundation, almost as if Bob Seger wandered into a dance club.
“You know what they say,” Madonna said at the song’s conclusion, “tits or tires, they’re all trouble…I’m here to stir up some (trouble) tonight..”
A very sweet take on “True Blue” had just Madonna and guitarist Monte Pittman on ukuleles, and it came across as a nod to 1950s doo-wop. A pounding disco beat drove “Deeper and Deeper” Madonna ended that one on the heart-shaped end of the catwalk, and a spiral staircase dropped from the ceiling, for “Heartbreak City.” While Madonna sang that torch song, a male dancer kept trying to approach her, with some startling acrobatics on the stairs, as she kept avoiding and rebuffing him. At the song’s finish, she pushed him off the 20-foot high top of the stairs, and he landed on a mat that had magically appeared from below. “See what happens? You don’t mess with the queen..” Madonna said, tongue firmly in cheek.
“Like A Virgin” seemed to be a new addition to the show, at least for Boston, and that old chestnut had the TD Garden rocking as fans danced and sang along, and Madonna, still amazingly limber and tireless at 57, danced and twirled her jacket overhead. “S.E.X.,” a rumbling club dance tune, got a rather obvious staging, with four couples entwined on four beds, acting out lovemaking. Three of the couples were boy-girl, and the fourth was two males.
A more striking staging – and seriously, this concert was like 23 mini-movies – came on “Living for Love,” where Madonna and her female dancers came out dressed as matadors, while the male dancers were costumed as satyrs, complete with horns. That operatic piece of dance-pop mania ended with the star conquering the satyrs, even taking the horns from one.
Things slowed down for that wonderful taste of Spanish music on “La Isla Bonita,” all acoustic guitar at a rapid pace, with all the dancers dressed in colorful Spanish outfits. That acoustic guitar feel was repeated a bit later to good effect on a simple and evocative “Who’s That Girl,” performed on the far end of the catwalk. Madonna noted that when all the trappings and extra arena show stuff is taken away, “the music is what really matters,” and that song surely proved it.
The title cut “Rebel Heart” was a bracing bit of dance-rock, leading up to Madonna’s last break. With her offstage, while her Kanye West-produced tune “Illuminati” was thumping over the speakers, seven of the dancers climbed 20-foot poles and began swaying back and forth, over the audience seated on the floor. Whatever material those elastic poles were, the swinging dancers defied gravity, and when eight more dancers, dressed in tux-and-tails, came out, there was some fun as the airborne dancers tried to swipe their comrades’ top hats.
The stage turned into a swank nightclub for the mashup of “Music/Candy Shop,” a thumping disco burner with some freaky sidelights. One dancer, for example, wore a half-tuxedo/half-hot pants and blouse thing, so that from one side he was a male, and from the other a girl. Meanwhile, a quartet of female dancers followed and danced with Madonna all over the stage and catwalk as she sang, and one of those four dancers was topless.
A bit later “Material Girl” got a new reading, a slowed-down rendition, as if to add more majesty to Madonna’s old hit. That one featured Madonna atop the main stage, tossing aside male dancer/suitors, who then slid down a long incline to the lower level. The Edith Piaf cover – done in French – was next, a really eye-opening chance to hear the star emote, and her voice was clear and affecting.
Madonna had mentioned that Saturday was her son David’s 10th birthday, and the little guy – one of two kids she adopted from Malawi – joined the dancers for the kinetic, beat-heavy “Unapologetic Bitch.” David followed mom, in his red coat, but then mixed in admirably with the male dancers, and even did a cool break-dance segment of his own, ending with a big split, as the crowd roared. That ended the regular set, but Madonna returned for the easy dance groove of “Holiday,” with the dancers returning in various stages of undress, as if they’d truly been surprised at the encore.
It was one last funny plot twist in this night of stirring mini-dramas, outrageousness, empowerment, audacity, and beyond a doubt, some thrilling music.