The start time on the ticket was 8 p.m., but Madonna didn't take the stage to kick off her U.S. tour until 10:25 last night. The listless Philadelphia crowd inside the Wells Fargo Center began to boo loudly at around 10. But this was Madonna, who knows a few things about reconciliation and forgiveness.
She began her hour and 45 minute set by scratching the religious itch she's had for nearly 30 years now. In front of a projected backdrop of an imposing cathedral, men in red hooded ecclesiastical robes rang a church bell, chanted and swung a censer back on forth, filling the stage with eerie smoke. The screen parted, and out floated Madge, backlit in silhouette, on a levitating confession booth, her brief monologue about forgiveness all but lost to the loud and emphatic cheers. Her tardiness was forgiven before she'd sung a note or struck a pose. (Still, she apologized later in the set, saying there's a lot of changeover from the European to American sets and she wanted the show to be "perfect" for her fans.)
The first act of MDNA is heavy on violent imagery, and Madonna has taken some heat for her use of gun props. During the first three numbers – "Girls Gone Wild," "Revolver" and "Gang Bang" – she toted a gun around the stage. On the last, she holed up in a cheap-hotel setting, besieged on all sides by men dressed in black and wearing ski masks. She shot each one with a pistol, spraying flashes of blood across a giant screen behind the set. The guns aren't the only part of the show that has raised eyebrows. She bared her breast in Muslim Turkey, stamped a swastika on an image of the right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen in Israel and, most notably, she pledged her support to the LGBT movement and jailed punk band Pussy Riot at separate concerts in Russia.
She voiced support for Pussy Riot in Philadelphia, too, after telling the crowd how good it was to be back home. "America's got its fair share of problems," she said. "But we have freedom of speech. We have freedom of expression. Never forget how lucky you are to live here."
The second act pepped things up quite a bit. Ditching the all-black outfit she wore for the first songs of the set, Madonna reappeared in stunning white alongside majorettes and a levitating drumline suspended from the ceiling. She cheekily blended "Express Yourself" with Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" and then took a shot at the young starlet, singing, "She's not me!" a few times.
Madonna cranked up the bombast with even more drum majors on "Give Me All Your Luvin'," which featured a videotaped rap verse from Nicki Minaj. M.I.A.'s verse was (not so) curiously absent. Things quieted down for drum-heavy acoustic turns on "Open Your Heart," "Sagarra Jo" and "Masterpiece." The singer stripped during "Human Nature," exposing a giant tattoo on her back that read "No Fear." "Sometimes it's a lot easier to show your ass than show your emotions," Madonna said before showing both with a bizarre rendition of "Like a Virgin," sung in half time accompanied only by piano.
She ended the set with a raucous, choir-assisted rendition of "Like a Prayer" and the cathartic, upbeat "Celebration." MDNA, she said, is meant to explore a "journey from darkness to light, from anger to love [and] from chaos to order." From the show's violent opening to its celebratory close, she's certainly succeeded at that.
"Girls Gone Wild"
"Papa Don't Preach"
"I Don't Give A"
"Express Yourself/ Born This Way"
"Give Me All Your Luvin'"
"Turn Up the Radio"
"Open Your Heart"
"Justify My Love"
"The Erotic Candy Shop"
"Like a Virgin"
"Nobody Knows Me"
"Addicted to Your Love"
"I'm a Sinner"
"Like a Prayer"