Music has two phases — the club night and the reflective morning after — but for Madonna’s purposes Sunday night at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, it was all about the drive for the dance floor. In a free concert for radio contest winners and select celebs like Rosie O’Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and Donatella Versace, Madonna took the stage for a five-song set, her first New York club appearance since her surprise 2 a.m. stop at the Roxy on Valentine’s Day, 1998.
Outside of that Roxy gig — in which she only played four songs — Madonna hasn’t played a venue the size of Roseland (which holds 3,000) since before her Like a Virgin tour fifteen years ago. It’s been strictly amphitheaters, arenas and stadiums ever since, which made this appearance even more of a rarity, especially considering she didn’t tour for her last album and hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll hit the road for this one. But judging by her joyous, practically giddy return to the stage, she’s going to have a hard time staying away.
With venue sets and decor designed by Italian duo Dolce & Gabbana, Roseland (as befitting Music‘s cover art and Madonna’s latest cowgirl/clubgirl persona) was a neo-Western wonderland, with bales of hay, yellow-lit horseshoes and silver cactuses throughout the lobby and entranceway. Scantily-dressed cowboy and Indian dancers vogued pre-show in provocative poses, lassoing each other and twirling passersby as they skated circles around them — like the Village People meets Coyote Ugly, roller disco style.
DJs Deep Dish — who played thudding, pulsing beats before and after opening act Everlast, in his first public acoustic performance — teased the crowd by sampling parts of Madonna’s “Music” to give a false sense that she was about to take the stage. And when she did, it was via a second stage not often used at the venue, the set of which been draped with an enlarged American flag. To the beginning strains of “Impressive Instant,” the flag lifted to reveal a pickup truck, which she crawled out of as four bare-chested male dancers encircled her, licking her on cue with her hushed commands of “Kiss me.”
Though on record “Instant” is rife with studio tricks and vocoder effects, Madonna’s voice was dry: no filters, no re-pitching, no compression, no echo, no delay — the only manipulation that remained was that of her sexual gyrations. It made her voice sound thin, but less ridiculous on lines such as “I want to singy, singy, singy/Like a bird on a wingy, wingy, wingy.”
Actually, all of the weirder, verging-on-annoying elements of Mirwais’ Eurodisco production, not just Madonna’s vocals, were flattened out, relieving “Don’t Tell Me” of its purposeful anxiety since its acoustic guitar couldn’t be electronically choppy. Mirwais (who joined Madonna on this one song) strummed the beginning of “Don’t Tell Me” straight, so that the guitar line’s similarity to “Sweet Home Alabama” was clear, the only real lick of hick to be found on Music, despite the album’s country-western imagery.
It seemed like the rustic element was about to be dropped as soon as the second verse brought in a swoon-worthy string section, playing on the second stage as Madonna by then had crowd-surfed her way to the main stage. But she brought the song’s underlying dance beats to the forefront as her two female backup singers joined her and the male dancers in a sort of techno two-step, an erotic party-girl line-dance that harnessed both country and electronic music dance moves. Odd, yes. But it was the moment that Music‘s incongruent music and style influences made sense, if only slightly.
Shedding the country-western jacket, Madonna revealed a slit-up-the-sides tank top with “Britney Spears” written on it in gold sequins, part of her winking dedication of “What It Feels Like for a Girl” to the teen pop imitator. Though soft in beat, the song is full of barbs like “When you open up your mouth to speak/Could you be a little weak?” which Madonna sang without irony. She seemed too happy to harp on anything, grinning madly as she shimmied and shook her hips to the throbbing bass and pounding beats. “I’m so happy to be on stage again!” she shouted at one point. “I’m kind of nervous. It’s been a while.”
Dancing quickly cleared up any anxiety, though, as she seemed to engage the crowd most when she just let the beats take over — she stopped singing during “Music” just to move to the seamless procession of pulse and groove, and it didn’t hurt the song a bit. Since the song itself, like many of her early singles, is a celebration of music’s ability to liberate and bring people together, it suited the connection she shared with her fans. In some ways, “Music” is essentially “Everybody” — even though Madonna’s style keeps changing direction, it fits into an ever-evolving, ever-larger picture. It would have been nice had she been able to show this evolution, but that’s not something she can readily do in a five-song set. Opening acts Deep Dish and Everlast (who was joined by N’Dea Davenport on “Love for Real”) accomplished this in part for her, evoking Madonna’s Music folktronic influences in their purest forms, Deep Dish with their trance beats, Everlast with his folk blues, so that she didn’t have to commit to either one — she can just continue to flirt with these styles until she finds a new one to adore and absorb.