The first questions posed when the subject of a new Madonna tour comes up are typically what was the controversy, how dark was it and did she skimp on the hits?
I’m an odd duck among Madonna fans and always have been. The thing I’m most interested in is how were the arrangements? After years of toying with her live renditions, Madonna and her creative team are masters at tweaking her hits — usually by playing with percussion beds and chord progressions while keeping melodies and tempos (mostly) intact. Although rare, these experiments occasionally backfire (“Like a Wirgin” anyone?).
The incarnations this time out for the “Rebel Heart Tour,” which touched down in Washington Saturday night in a glitch-free performance (remarkable as it was only the third show of the tour), were as effectively fresh as any I’ve ever heard her use. Even more satisfying, though, was that this was applied to a bumper crop of second-tier hits she pulled out. It was actually nice, for a change, to get a reprieve from oft-performed stalwarts such as “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” (or even the oddly perennial “Human Nature”) in favor of several she hasn’t sung live in decades. Having toured consistently her last five albums (in the new music paradigm, it’s where all the money is especially for veteran acts), she’s more inclined to plunge deeper for material. For the faithful — and this was no less a gay high holy day than it’s ever been — that was a real treat.
“Burning Up” was thrashy and spare; “True Blue” found Madonna plucking out the accompaniment on a ukelele (trust me, it worked); “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” was woven in beautifully with “HeartBreakCity, a cut from the new album; “Deeper and Deeper” was thankfully rescued from the torchy makeover it had on the “Re-Invention Tour” to its original tempo; while a sparse “Like a Virgin,” performed sans dancers over a blisteringly syncopated beat, felt like it rocked the Verizon Center rafters.
Although not averse to the occasional mash-up, Madonna has for years eschewed the hits medley approach. So it was a delightful surprise when what started out sounding like a Latin-infused (and slightly slower) rendition of “Dress You Up” turned out to be an ‘80s medley that seamlessly wove in “Into the Groove,” “Everybody” and “Lucky Star” before returning to “Dress.” Equally fun was the next song, an acoustic sing-along of “Who’s That Girl,” another early-career hit that’s been out of rotation too long. “La Isla Bonita,” “Material Girl” and encore “Holiday” were offered in more faithful renditions.
For reviving such relatively deep cuts, it never felt like Madonna was scraping. You might think, having toured so much in the last 14 years and being the kind of singer known for mixing things up from tour to tour (although almost never from night to night), her discography would start feeling a bit exhausted by now. That was not the case and it left her plenty of room for stuff from the new album with 12 “Rebel Heart” tracks represented in some capacity (a few were interludes). While not career-defining by any means, the new cuts meshed well with the classic material and the show was expertly paced. Oddly MIA were “Ghost Town” and “Joan of Arc.”
“Holy Water,” with gyrating nuns, was naughty fun, much like “Body Shop.” The biggest showstopper came about half-way through with an expertly choreographed rendition of “Living for Love.” The dancers, sets, video screens, costumes, were all as top-level as we’ve come to expect from a Madonna tour. This is a woman who never coasts. Overall, this outing had a lighter, less gritty feel than the “MDNA Tour.” Both work — this was just more fun. She seemed to be having fun too. Perhaps it was because the tour is just starting, but she smiled more easily than any time I’ve ever seen her.
Only one moment felt slightly off — the oddly flat false exit at the end of “Unapologetic Bitch.” It was redeemed by “Holiday,” (itself a surprise as Madonna almost never gives an encore) but still felt abrupt and anti-climactic.
For me, the biggest surprise was how strong Madonna’s vocals were. For all her bluster, stamina and innovation, her vocals, pleasant enough, have never been the calling card. During several of the evening’s quieter moments, especially a late-in-the-show and out-of-nowhere cover of “La Vie en Rose,” you almost could imagine a whole evening of that working without all the sets and bombast. Her range, tone quality and interpretive abilities have improved with age. It was a nice surprise on a pitch-perfect evening.