“Did you cry?” Aftermath asked a new friend during the mass exodus from Minute Maid Park after Madonna’s first Houston show since she opened 1990’s Blonde Ambition tour at the Summit.
“Yes,” she said, and from what Aftermath could gather from an informal straw poll, she was far from the only one.
Madonna’s memory may be faulty – “I’ve never played Houston before,” she said at one point – but that’s about it. Now 50, the pop icon thrilled the sold-out crowd for almost two solid hours of sci-fi stagecraft (opener “Candy Shop” began like something out of The Terminator), steamy choreography and indelible songs.
Impressively, she did so without turning the affair into a greatest-hits revue – about half the set came from this year’s Hard Candy, and there was only one song from Like a Virgin and no “Papa Don’t Preach,” no “Lucky Star,” no “Express Yourself.” They weren’t missed, mostly because like Madonna herself, nobody stopped moving long enough to notice.
How many of Hard Candy’s songs – gloriously superficial mega-disco, with hooks for miles and beats for days - will survive into subsequent tours remains to be seen, but as a sonic backdrop to the outsize stage production that included a Rolls-Royce, gypsy minstrel troupe and video-screen guest appearances from Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and Justin Timberlake, they were perfect. Anything smaller just wouldn’t be Madonna, and the songs’ glossy hi-res production, freely mingling pop, R&B, hip-hop, rock and dance, is as cutting-edge as anything she’s ever done.
It must be hell on Madonna to have to comb through her prodigious catalog when touring time rolls around, but Sunday’s older material was well-chosen and rebooted to suit Madonna’s contemporary technorama. “Vogue” was sleek and chic, with her shirtless hardbody dancers striking a pose in S&M gear, while “Human Nature” piled on mad heavy beats and more vocoder than three Zapp & Roger albums.
“Into the Groove” was retrofitted with a house beat as big as Carlos Lee’s contract and bass deeper than the Mariana Trench as Madonna and company, clad in vintage Wild Style wardrobe, flitted about and ended with a jump-rope-off. “Borderline” was a stunner, redone as a Joan Jett-like rocker, one of several instances where Madonna proved her guitar was far more than a prop.
Let’s see… what else? Hard Candy’s “She’s Not Me” found Madonna sparring with four look-alikes outfitted from her “Erotica,” “Material Girl,” “Like a Virgin” and “Vogue” videos – very meta, Madge – “Music” married A Chorus Line to Dr. Dre and “La Isla Bonita” ushered in a mid-set gypsy interlude featuring a fierce fiddle/accordion duel while one of her bohunks fed her a much-needed (I’m sure) drink of water.
And by the way, the glitzy “4 Minutes” proved she can still sing her ass off, while “Like a Prayer” brought together gospel, techno, dancers in bondage/gimp getup, Mecca-like bowing and Arabic script, Hindu art and scattered proverbs onscreen. Aftermath isn’t sure what it all meant, but it sure was something.
Then, “Ray of Light.” You know the song, folks. Cue up a ginormous techno beat in your head, picture Madonna back on guitar and let your imagination go crazy. On a night when Minute Maid Park temporarily became the largest gay disco in North America – you have to wonder what Astros owner Drayton McLane thought about that – the song sounded as big as the cosmos onscreen.
You did Space City proud, Madonna. Don’t wait another 18 years to come back. – Chris Gray
"Candy Shop" (Hard Candy, 2008) "Beat Goes On" (Hard Candy) "Human Nature" (Bedtime Stories, 1994) "Vogue" (I'm Breathless, 1990) "Into the Groove" (Like a Virgin, 1984) "Heartbeat" (Hard Candy) "Borderline" (Madonna, 1983) "She's Not Me" (Hard Candy) "Music" (Music, 2000) "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" (Hard Candy) "Spanish Lesson" (Hard Candy) "Miles Away" (Hard Candy) "La Isla Bonita" (True Blue, 1986) "You Must Love Me" (Evita, 1996) "4 Minutes" (Hard Candy) "Like a Prayer" (Like a Prayer, 1989) "Ray of Light" (Ray of Light, 1998) "Hung Up" (Confessions on a Dancefloor, 2005) "Give It 2 Me" (Hard Candy)
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