Madonna at the United Center | Photos and Review
We came, we screamed, we drank the Kool-Aid. As TOC's resident Madonna junkies who cheer her every victory (Confessions on a Dance Floor) and fret her every misstep (about half of MDNA), it was only fitting that we-tag team review her show last night at the United Center. Instead of giving you a boring rundown you can read about in a thousand other media outlets, we instead decided to each highlight five Madonna moments—good and bad.
Madonna's dark and disturbing tirade against ex-husband Guy Ritchie is an instant bright spot on MDNA, an album that sonically is kind of all over the map. I was crossing my fingers that she would perform it live and her interpretation last night did not disappoint. Holed up in a dingy roadside motel room (a fascinating set piece) Madonna sings about being jilted by a lover as armed marauders try to break in. One by one she picks them off with a shotgun and with every bullet to the head, splatters of blood appear on the LED screens behind her. Not only was the number technically thrilling, but because it's largely spoken word there was no worry that her vocals wouldn't hold up. It was electrifying, dazzling and exuberantly campy. My only regret is that a showstopper like this should've been saved for later in the show.
"Express Yourself/Born This Way/She's Not Me"
If the joke isn't funny to you (or perhaps it just feels tired), then you'll no doubt bemoan Madonna's splicing together of her iconic anthem to womanhood with Lady Gaga's eerily similar dance floor number. I couldn't care less either way. What I loved about this number was the marching-band vibe and drum corps beat Madonna employed to raise the stakes on a song she's done in concert a thousand times before. Add to it the Warhol-inspired video screen pop art imagery with a feminist bent (if you were paying close attention you would've seen silkscreen versions of her iconic cone bra and also the wig she wore in the Blond Ambition Tour) and you've got a solid reason to get excited for an eighties classic all over again.
"Turn Up the Radio"
To paraphrase, "I'm going to need your help on this one!" Madonna shouted at the top of this number. Translation: I don't have the vocal talent to handle this one on my own so you're going to have to do the heavy lifting. The problem is her latest single (a lovely, summertime anthem) isn't iconic enough for even a rabid fan base to have already memorized. Instead, we had Madonna screeching her way though this number while standing at the mic and strumming her guitar. Visually disappointing and vocally annoying. If I wanted to hear the sound of a chicken being strangled, I would've spent the night at a slaughterhouse.
I'm going to take flack for this one, not just from my colleague Kevin who hates this song, but also from diehard fans who will no doubt decry her interpretation as derivitive of her Girlie Show tour (but not only did I not see that tour, I'm also giving myself a pass since it was nearly 20 years ago). Anyway, doing her gender neutral Marlene Dietrich best, Madonna slows down this track opener from 2008's Hard Candy and truncates the stage to give it an intimate German cabaret circa 1930s vibe complete with a hanging chandelier and piano player. Dancers in black and white tuxes and gowns (some in drag) take turns two-stepping with both Madonna and each other while the song weaves in excerpts from Erotica as an added touch. Finally, a so-so song becomes listenable.
"I'm A Sinner"
One of the most underrated tracks on MDNA, "I'm A Sinner" has a retro beach party vibe that's undeniably infectious and Madonna's vision for it included three elevated boxes lit so that they resembled train cars. Meanwhile, the video screens behind her showcased the stunning scenery of third world countries drenched in Kodachrome color and the illusion that Madonna and company were on a train ride through the developing world. Ping-ponging between the three different trains were four exuberantly dressed male dancers whose moves were among the most daring and impressive of the evening. It was good, giddy fun mixed with just a hint of the spiritual mumbo jumbo Madonna can't seem to resist.
Wow, that was a violent beginning to the show. For some reason, I'm all about spoilers when it comes to concerts. I want to know the setlist, I'll read reviews and watch YouTube clips of the show before I attend it in person. I'd done all of that before heading to the United Center last night, so I knew Madonna would be waving around a gun while performing this MDNA track. I just wasn't prepared for how violent it actually was. The splattering of blood on the huge LED screens behind her as she killed off her back-up dancers was a bit much. I know it's supposed to be artistic, but I didn't quite get the message. Especially since it seemed to conflict with her speech in the middle of show, which she basically told us to all "be nice to each other."
This was my fourth time seeing Madonna, and I feel like this was the most comfortable I've ever seen her on stage. She was downright chatty at points. During most concerts, big stars never say more than the obligatory "Hello, [insert city]!" in between songs. But Madonna had a lot more to say. She talked about the last time she was in the United Center, which was for Oprah's big farewell celebration. She mentioned that she has a lot of respect for Oprah, but you don't have to be as powerful as Oprah to change the world. It was a brief moment of inspiration. Other times, she talked about a problem she was having with her mic and encouraging people to buy more merch ("I have four kids and need to put shoes on their feet."). Not totally inspiring, but it felt candid and off-the-cuff. It was nice to see that she's not just going through the motions the whole time.
"Open Your Heart/Like a Prayer"
Speaking of her kids, from where we were sitting, we could see a bit of the backstage action and I immediately spotted Madonna's son, Rocco. It was cool to see that she keeps the kids (or at least one of them) nearby. (Even though with a 10:20pm start time, I would assume it was past the 12-year-old's bedtime.) Within minutes, he was on stage dancing while his mom sang Open Your Heart. It was just like he was the little boy in the original '80s video and I loved this tour's folky/intimate rendition of the song. Rocco returned to the stage (in a choir robe) during Like a Prayer. He might look just like Guy Ritchie, but he definitely has Madonna's dance moves.
"Like a Virgin"
She performed a version of this classic hit like we've never heard it before. She turned the song into a slowed down waltz and sang it only accompanied by a piano as she stripped down to a bra and flashed her ass. ("For Give" was written in huge black letters on her back. From what I understand, the motto changes from time to time. It was "No Fear" at her Philly show.) Even though I don't think Madonna has to strip and be so provocative, she managed to make this a sexy and intimate moment. This felt like it could've been a number in her acclaimed mid-90's tour "Girlie Show." Usually I get bored during slower songs, but not this time.
"Give Me All Your Lovin'"
I'm the first to admit that I'm not really a fan of this song...but after the way Madonna performed it last night, I'm starting to change my mind. I wasn't looking forward to Madonna dressed up as a drum majorette/cheerleader (seemed a little too cheesy to me), but it really worked. This portion of the show was all about high energy and it certainly was contagious. Cheerleaders ran up and down the catwalk; drummers were floating down from the top of the United Center—I was ready to grab a pompom and start cheering along with them. It was the best parade I've ever seen. Maybe Madonna should be in charge of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade this year?