After twenty years in the limelight, Madonna is expected to cause controversy and reinvent herself for every new tour. So for the May 24th Los Angeles opening of her Re-Invention world trek, Madonna did the most unexpected thing she could: She came back as a great concert singer.
Even the most diehard Madonna fan will concede that her live performances have almost without exception been plagued by a multitude of missed notes, breathy passages, and, as of late, fake British accents. But while Mariah and Whitney have of been losing the acrobatic vocal dexterity and lung power on which their reputations rest, forty-five-year-old Madonna, whom few have ever taken seriously as a musician, has never sounded better than she did during the first of several gigs in her adopted West Coast home. Whether rocking out with classic black Les Paul in hand during a metallic rendition of her early club hit "Burning Up," or performing "Like a Prayer" behind a screen-projected gospel choir, Madonna belted, and did not once seemed strained. In the midst of a $1 million production festooned with a walkway that jutted out from the stage and over the audience, massive moving video screens, a dozen dancers, a bagpipe player, a stunt skateboarder and a whole lot of emotionally charged anti-war imagery, the focus was nevertheless on Madonna, and how she's matured into a truly great pop singer.
Opening with a yoga-trained twist on her famous Louis XIV-inspired MTV Video Music Awards rendition of "Vogue" and ending on a kilt-wearing finale of "Holiday" against a video backdrop of national flags that eventually morphed into one, the show was thematically simpler and more focused than her last several productions.
The barbarism of war and the necessity of love were at the heart of the entire show, and both played off each other, sometimes for ironic and decidedly uneasy effect. The original military-themed video footage of "American Life" that the singer withheld at the start of the Iraq war was finally unveiled, and then expanded upon during "Express Yourself," where Madonna sang her anthem of unbridled, intimate communication in front of dancers dressed as soldiers and goose-stepping with twirling rifles.
By contrast, Madonna closed an extended acoustic section of the show with a straightforward and thoroughly committed rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" as images of war and poverty-ravaged children eventually gave way to footage of a Muslim boy and his Israeli counterpart smiling as they walked with their arms wrapped around each other.
The heaviness of much of the imagery was balanced by Madonna's own presence, which seemed remarkably fun-loving and self-assured for the opening night of her most technically complex production. Only when she strapped on an acoustic or electric guitar during several songs and repeatedly glanced at her left hand to make sure it was playing the proper chords did she seem at all nervous. "How many people out there really think that I am the Material Girl?" she asked during a break in her most iconic early smash as she strummed with much deliberation.
For the last several songs, Madonna and her dancers donned black and white kilts, an apparent nod to husband Guy Ritchie's Scottish heritage, and black T-shirts that read "Kabbalists Do It Better," a cheeky reference to both her religious studies and the "Italians Do It Better" T-shirt she wore during her video for "Papa Don't Preach," a song that was performed without the "near-naked pregnant women" described in pre-tour reports of the show. In a number dedicated for the "fans that've stood by me for the last twenty years," she sang her earliest hit ballad, "Crazy For You," earnestly and without contrivance.
Madonna's continued relevance was impressive, but it was even more striking that she's putting more love and genuine passion into her spectacle than ever.