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Madonna Swings for the Fences

6/13/2014
Madonna Swings for the Fences © AP Madonna Swings for the Fences

The pop empress brings her MDNA Tour to Yankee Stadium

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

As the subway moved north through Manhattan on its way to Yankee Stadium on Thursday night, each stop brought a new influx of grown women dressed as Madonna. At 14th Street, it was a pack of out-of-towners in fishnets and O-ring bracelets. A bowler-hat-and-suspenders, "Who's That Girl"-era fan boarded at 86th Street. All the way to the Bronx, hair bows were adjusted, lacy fingerless gloves pulled on.

You have to wonder what these aging Madonna-wannabes made of the stop that the MDNA Tour made at the "House that Ruth Built," t he first of two appearances in the city that launched the star. The almost two-hour long show was high on concept, low on hits, as much art piece as pop spectacle -- ambitious, impeccably staged, and sporadically satisfying.

Madonna has described this concert as "the journey of a soul from dark to light," but the construction is more like a broad-stroke ballet narrative than a Broadway musical. After opening with the ringing of church bells and a recorded confession, the music began with "Girl Gone Wild," in which she presented the first segment's theme, "I know I shouldn't act this way."

This set is the "controversial" portion of the night; Madonna toted a gun and racked up a gory body count during the first three songs, at one point blasting while perched on a cross; it's a device that feels both cheap and repetitive. She confronts her guilt in an abbreviated and slowed-down "Papa Don't Preach," and is then captured and punished in an ominous version of "Hung Up" that pulled out the song's latent themes of obsession and isolation.

The far more entertaining second act concentrated on the idea of salvation through personal expression -- beginning with Madonna twirling a baton and leading a group of majorettes and a drumline through "Express Yourself" (with a sly snippet of Lady Gaga's sound-alike "Born This Way" tossed in). After bringing out a trio of Basque musicians known as Kalakan, she delivered a pretty, mostly acoustic rendition of "Open Your Heart," raising the question of whether she might not be better served at this stage of her career exploring global sounds and less-familiar pathways rather than glomming on to the hottest names in electronic dance music.

The final section revealed Madonna delving into her sexuality ("Vogue"--brought back to the uptown New York City home of the original voguing houses--"Candy Shop" and "Human Nature"), before ultimately embracing the contradictions within herself ("I'm Addicted," "I'm a Sinner") and sharing her bliss with the crowd in an ecstatic "Like a Prayer." The deep red lighting and dark costumes of the early songs had given way to bright-colored outfits and white light, and the stadium full of middle-aged women and gay men was thrilled to finally get the release they had been waiting for all night.

The major set pieces in the production are stunning, from dancers bouncing on slack lines to a drum corps suspended in air, but some of the smaller moments -- a dancer crawling backward down steps, Madonna moving in front of a series of mirrors -- created images at least as memorable. On many of the songs, the vocals are too electronically manipulated to know (or, really, to care) how much Madonna is actually singing; in the moments when her live voice was apparent, it often sounded a bit nasal and struggling for breath.

The real problem with the MDNA show, though, is the material. Almost half of the evening's songs come from the mediocre new album that gives the tour its name. It's perfectly reasonable that Madonna doesn't feel obligated to perform "Lucky Star" or "Into the Groove" at this point, but the absence of any selections from a great later album like "Ray of Light" is harder to understand.

The Yankee Stadium show fell on the same night as President Obama's speech accepting his nomination, an event Madonna alluded to several times; in the partial striptease during "Human Nature," she displayed a large back tattoo reading "Obama," and earlier, during a speech celebrating "how lucky we are to live in America," she said, "Thank God for Michelle Obama, and her good-looking husband, too."

The evening's most powerful moment, though, was not fully scripted. During a powerful, almost uncomfortably intimate re-arrangement of "Like a Virgin," which slowed the song to a spare, waltz-time crawl, Madonna lay on the floor, murmuring the lyrics into a microphone beside her head. Visible behind her was a sign, held aloft by someone in the crowd, reading "Madonna Saved My Life." In its finest moments, if not often enough, Thursday night's show proved that at her best, she is still capable of this kind of provocation and power.

Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den" and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Light is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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