In a dramatic touch Madonna might have orchestrated herself if she could, tornados touched down in Brooklyn and Queens Saturday afternoon in the hours before she was scheduled to take the stage two boroughs away, at Yankee Stadium. As her 10 p.m. set time drew near, it was going to take a miracle to clear the clouds, and though the Queen of Pop’s opener “Girl Gone Wild” began a half-hour later with a recording of the pop star intoning, “Oh my God,” the night remained soggy.
Still, the Good Lord was omnipresent for the next two hours, which ramped up and wound down to religious invocations (“Act of Contrition” and “Like a Prayer”) as Madonna and her immaculately rehearsed crew of dancers and musicians strutted on soaked catwalks to present the MDNA Tour, what Madonna calls “The journey of a soul from darkness to light.”
The show was indeed a trip, a winding exploration of Madonna’s most beloved flashpoints: control, religion, family, peace, her image. It was brilliantly choreographed and impeccably executed, yet it was the least coherent of her arena spectacles since she returned to the road with 2001’s Drowned World Tour.
Like all of her concerts since 1990’s Blond Ambition, the show was carved into thematic chapters: She started tensely with Transgression, waving guns around to “Revolver” and “Gang Bang” as cherry-red blood splashed across the video screens behind her. The mood brightened with the arrival of Prophecy, as Madonna emerged dressed as a drum majorette in a white-and-red uniform with tall white boots. In the night’s most inventive staging, for MDNA‘s bouncy “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” a drumline was suspended in mid-air and Nicki Minaj mugged in a nun’s habit via video screen.
This was also the now-famous section of the show that includes “Express Yourself,” which Madonna blends with a few lines from “Born This Way” as her dancers mimic Lady Gaga’s paws-up choreography to demonstrate its insane similarity to her own 1989 hit. (Madge caps the bit with a nod to her Hard Candy deep cut “She’s Not Me”; subtlety has never been her strong suit.)
Despite the jab, this is also the part of the show showcasing an elegant reworking of “Open Your Heart” featuring the Basque musicians Kalakan, who weave their own “Sagarra Jo!” into a version of the song that’s mostly voices and drumming. Their anthem, Madonna informed the crowd in a lengthy monologue that followed while sipping from a water bottle via a long red straw, is “about smashing prejudices… discrimination, separation, racism… and hatred of any kind.” Could she get a “Fuck yeah?” She could. Could she make the rain stop with a snippet of “Holiday,” a rare unscheduled addition to the set list? She could not.
“We’re in this wet shit together,” she barked at the damp audience from her massive stage. “We are family.” In truth, she was surrounded by family: she’s dating MDNA dancer Brahim Zaibat and her son Rocco joined her onstage for a handful of songs.
The former got the most stage time during the Masculine/Feminine part of the concert, which featured the highest concentration of hits from the previous century: a faithful, super-sharp version of “Vogue” she performed in a man-tailored outfit topped by a reimagination of Gautlier’s iconic cone bra, a slinky “Human Nature.” That set closed, however, with a dreary, Dresden Dolls-like piano take on “Like a Virgin” (interpolated with Abel Korzeniowski’s “Evgeni’s Waltz,” from her film W.E.) that left the crowd chilly.
But redemption, of course, was just around the corner. The final chapter is called Celebration, but its tracks could have easily been wedged into “Transgression”: a rave-y rendition of MDNA standout “I’m Addicted” followed by Madonna playing her black electric guitar atop a Magic Bus for a groovy version of “I’m a Sinner.” Security had been trying to prevent the crowd from dancing in the wet aisles all night long, but when a choir emerged for “Like a Prayer,” the entire stadium gave up and gave in. Boys in bondage gear threw their arms around middle aged women in ponchos. The energy was dangerously electric. Oh my God.
We were family. And Madonna, careening down the catwalk and falling to her knees, was orchestrating our chaos. She returned for greatest-hits cut “Celebration,” but by that point the party felt slightly disingenuous. MDNA is a dark album about trying to get a grip on slippery circumstances, and its tour reflects its turmoil and uncertainty. Saturday threatened to get far more slippery, but Madonna knows how to keep things under control, even in the face of acts of God.