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‘Heart’ palpitations

New Madonna tour DVD and live album stronger than source material that inspired it

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Rebel Heart Tour, gay news, Washington Blade

Madonna performs in Stockholm on her massive ‘Rebel Heart Tour.’ (Photo by Christian Weger; courtesy Flickr)

Madonna’s last studio album, 2015’s “Rebel Heart,” was far from her best work, but when it comes to the tour that it launched — finally out on DVD and live album a year and a half after wrapping — the album itself hardly matters.

“The Rebel Heart Tour” was another triumph for the pop icon, who has never disappointed as a live performer. The worldwide trek stretched for 82 shows and 55 cities, raked in a cool $169.8 million and was viewed by more than a million lucky fans.

Madonna’s continued strength and perseverance is inspiring to her fans and should be even to those who don’t care for her music. Even her detractors cannot deny that she has put in the work. She is tireless, working hard to make sure her fans get the most for their money and to make it an experience they will never forget.

The just-released live CD and DVD were filmed at the Allphones Arena on March 19–20, 2016 in Sydney. The double CD spans 22 songs and 100 minutes and for the most parts it’s thoroughly entertaining. The weakest aspect of the collection are the nine songs from the “Rebel Heart” album, although they do work marginally better in a live setting than their underwhelming studio versions. It’s understandable that she would highlight her most recent album, but these songs will never stand up along her best work and most of her classic singles.

Of course, Madonna doesn’t neglect those hits and it’s fascinating as always to hear which ones she decides to highlight. She obviously can’t play them all (unless it’s gonna be an all-night show), so she picks and chooses carefully, including songs that haven’t appeared frequently on prior tours. Madonna typically splashes them with a modern sheen and different arrangements, keeping the much-played tunes fresh and keeping the audiences guessing.

She cleverly adapts the ‘60s pop pastiche “True Blue” into an acoustic singalong and her early new wave dance classic “Burning Up” features a blistering guitar solo. The retro disco groove of “Deeper and Deeper” is updated in electrifying fashion while her sometimes overlooked classic “La Isla Bonita” is kept more faithful to the original but is still a highlight.

Madonna has reinvented “Like a Virgin” numerous times over the years and this time she goes with a minimalist club beat so the audience can sing along exuberantly. “Dress You Up” and “Into the Groove” were both popular around the same timeframe so it makes sense that they are appended together in a medley. She delivers a sizzling take on her final no. 1 single, 2000’s “Music,” with a flirty throwback jazz intro that might have been an interesting approach for the entire song. The biggest surprise is “Candy Shop,” the funky lead track from her underrated 2008 album “Hard Candy” — it holds up nicely wedged between much bigger hits.

Less effective is the modern take on “Material Girl,” which saps the cheeky charm of the original while accenting its more annoying aspects (especially those wretched background vocals). Her take on the Édith Piaf standard “La Vie en Rose” doesn’t quite get off the ground, and a gruelingly long take on her recent “Unapologetic Bitch” is eminently skippable. The finale, though, is a strong one-two punch of her first major hit “Holiday” and arguably her greatest single “Like a Prayer,” which retains its dramatic grandeur.

Of course, a CD and DVD will not replace seeing the actual show in person, but like all of the live album releases Madonna has issued over the years (this is her fifth), they are excellent souvenirs.

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Music & Concerts

Washington Arts Ensemble to host immersive concert

Creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture

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The Washington Arts Ensemble will host an immersive concert experience on Saturday, June 18 at 7 p.m. at Dupont Underground.

This concert will show how distinct genres influence pop culture and articulate the commonality between classical, jazz, and electronic music while creating a dialogue with D.C.’s history and culture.

Some of the works that will be performed include “Switched-On Bach selections” by Wendy Carlos, “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals by Camile Saint-Saens, among other works.

Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on the Washington Arts Ensemble’s website

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Music & Concerts

John Levengood releases anthem “Say Gay!” to protest discrimination

Slated to perform new song at 2022 Capital Pride Festival in June

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Recording artist John Levengood’s latest song ‘Say Gay!’ is out Friday. (Photo courtesy Levengood)

“Say gay! Say gay! Say gay!
“Say what? Say what?
“One little law won’t shut us up!”

Slated for digital release this Friday, recording artist John Levengood’s latest song “Say Gay!” confronts anti-LGBTQ legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by encouraging others to “profess their queerness loudly, proudly, and never in the shadows,” Levengood said in a press release shared with the Blade on Tuesday.

On June 12, Levengood is set to perform the song’s live debut at the 2022 Capital Pride Festival in Washington, D.C., to streets teeming with community members, food trucks, and local vendors, according to the press release.

“The rise in oppressive legislation and proposals have many in the LGBTQ+ community alarmed,” the press release says. Levengood “hopes this song can be used as a metaphorical weapon to blast holes in the argument that teaching children about acceptance and diversity is more appropriate at home than school.”

The bill, enacted by the Florida Legislature earlier this year but not yet in force, would limit teachers’ ability to teach LGBTQ topics in some school settings and obligate school officials to disclose students’ sexual orientation and gender identity to their parents upon request.

A D.C. resident himself, Levengood currently works over the weekends as resident host and karaoke emcee at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., an LGBTQ bar and restaurant.

Levengood is no stranger to the music scene, in 2013 moving through multiple rounds of auditions for the third season of “The X Factor” before coming up short of formally appearing on the show, according to the release.

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of rural Virginia, the press release added that music has been an outlet for Levengood to express himself from an early age. The new song marks his seventh musical release.

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Music & Concerts

Tori Amos spins magic at Sunday night D.C.-area concert

First show in the area since ’17 finds Gen X icon vocally subdued but musically energized

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As with many veteran rock stars, it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on how hot or cold Tori Amos’s 30-year-old solo career is at the moment. It sometimes seems like she’s moving past the take-her-for-granted-because-she’s-never-away-for-long phase, and there certainly was that sense in the air Sunday night for her D.C.-area stop of her current “Ocean to Ocean Tour,” her first show here since 2017, which, with COVID, feels like a lifetime ago.

But there are also signs that it’s never been chillier for Amos in the overall pop culture landscape. It’s been a decade since she charted a single on any chart and there were no videos or singles from her “Ocean to Ocean” album last fall. It landed just outside the top 100 on the U.S. Billboard 200 album sales chart altogether, a new low that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago when her “regular” (i.e. non-specialty/concept) albums were almost guaranteed a top 10 debut. 

The slide has been swift, too: 2014’s “Unrepentant Geraldines” hit No. 7, the next album (2017’s polarizing “Native Invader”) only made it to 39, then came “Ocean’s” thud at no. 104. There’s a lot you could point to to explain it — streaming, her aging Gen X fan base, the endless undulations of the music industry itself — but in some ways it has started to feel like she’s getting less and less return on her artistic dollar than one would expect. 

Yeah, that always happens with veteran female pop stars once they hit their 50s and beyond, but Amos and her small but mighty fan base, who for decades exhibited a devotion of Grateful Dead-like proportions, outran the trend for so long, to see it finally catching up is a bit bewildering.

But then you go hear her live at a decent-size venue like The Theater at MGM National Harbor (which seats 3,000 and was about 97 percent full), and it feels nearly like old times. Sure, some of the excitement was just that we’re all gagging at being at concerts at all and having mask restrictions and vaccine requirements paused, but there was an electricity that, while mellower than it was at Amos concerts in the ’90s, still felt magical. I’ve never in my life seen so long a line for the merch table.

The concert itself was, for the most part, sublime. It was the first time since 2009 she’s toured with a band and while her solo shows are great too, there was pent-up yearning to hear her unleash full-on with a solid rhythm section (Jon Evans on bass, Ash Soan on drums) again. Beat-heavy songs like “Raspberry Swirl” and “Cornflake Girl” sounded tepid with canned beats the last few times out, so to hear everything truly live (save a few BGVs and effects) last night was heavenly.

It was Gen X queer night out Sunday night at the Theater at MGM National Harbor for Tori Amos’s first concert here since 2017. (Photo by Desmond Murray; courtesy Girlie Action)

The show had special poignancy too, as Amos grew up in the region. She has written and commented heavily on the immense toll her mother’s 2019 death took on her personally and artistically, so that the date happened to be Mother’s Day gave the proceedings added gravitas. “Mother Revolution” and “Jackie’s Strength” spoke, of course, to the holiday, though (and this is quibbling) I would have vastly preferred “Mother” from “Little Earthquakes,” a deep cut we haven’t heard live in eons. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)

Highlights included the slinky, rhythm-loopy opener “Juarez”; “Ocean to Ocean,” one of three cuts performed from the new record, which shimmered with Philip Glass-like piano arpeggios; the vampy, slinky interplay between the three musicians on “Mother Revolution”; and unexpected fan favorite “Spring Haze.” Amos, overall, is varying up the set list quite a bit less than is her norm, so it was one of the few surprises of the evening. 

The lengths of several of the songs were drawn out considerably. At times — “A Sorta Fairytale,” the aforementioned “Revolution” — that worked well and gave the band time to languidly jam. At other points, it felt a bit self-indulgent and even slightly boring — as on “Sweet Sangria” and “Liquid Diamonds.” 

“Russia,” a bonus cut from the last album, sounded just how it did when Amos performed it here in 2017, but took on added resonance because of current events. Closing line “Is Stalin on your shoulder” was chilling.

Overall, the show — lighting, pacing, everything — largely worked. The sound mix, which fans have said has been muddy at some venues recently on the tour, was pristine. Pacing only lagged a few times in some of the mid-tempo cuts from later albums, but just when you felt some were zoning — the flow of those entering and exiting is a good barometer — Amos whipped things back together with a fan favorite like “Past the Mission” or “Spring Haze.”

It all came to a satisfying, audience-friendly climax with “Cornflake Girl,” then the two encore cuts, “Precious Things” and “Tear in Your Hand,” both from the first album. 

Vocally, the range was there and sounded lovely, but the oomph was considerably held back. Vocal preservation for the many dates ahead? Probably. It’s understandable. Amos, at 58, may lack the stamina she had 20 years ago, but it did feel underwhelming in passages that in years past would have been full on, balls out like the “Bliss” bridge or the “nine-inch nails” passage from “Precious Things.” 

Not one acknowledgment or mention by Amos of the female folk duo openers Companion. I’d have invited them out for a few numbers to sing BGVs. I mean, heck, they’re in the house, why not? And other than the welcome, a brief soliloquy on Mother’s Day was the only Amos comment of the entire night. 

Still Amos never came off as aloof. She seemed genuinely excited to be playing live again and the queer-heavy crowd responded in kind. 

Tori Amos (Blade photo by Joey DiGuglielmo)
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