VANCOUVER – What the heck was that? That seemed to be the question on the minds of a lot of people as we filed out of Rogers Arena following a two-hour-plus concert by Madonna on her Rebel Heart Tour.
There were many moments that were more suited to a much less experienced artist playing mid-size club or perhaps theatre rather than a wizened pro in an arena.
There was the rambling stage banter, in which the 57-year-old seemed to be making a plea for sympathy .(“I’m schizophrenic and bipolar,“ she claimed at one point, leaving us to wonder if she was joking)
There were the shots (tequila?) tossed back onstage which had us wondering if the pop star wasn’t a little tipsy. There was an acoustic version of Secret (from her 1994 album Bedtime Stories) that the singer admitted she hadn’t practiced, and which came across as, charitably, unpracticed (if well-intentioned).
There was the broadside delivered to one of her male dancers (“Are you as dumb as you look?”) which left him looking uncomfortable (and the audience going “awwwww”). And there were too much drawn-out, not very well thought-out audience interactions that had this reviewer wondering if there was any end to the night in sight.
Musically, too, the pop music pioneer seemed off her game. This though might have as much to do with the setlist for this tour as with whatever mood she was in on this particular night.
With songs like Bitch I’m Madonna, Iconic and the title track, her latest (and 13th) album Rebel Heart celebrates Madonna’s survival as well as her ascent to the pop-music pantheon. That being the case, the accompanying tour would have been the perfect opportunity for her to re-establish her reign as pop queen and show young whippersnappers like Miley and Nikki how to get things done.
A set that was a greatest-hits career retrospective and included a smattering of new songs would likely have had the audience on its feet and cheering for a solid 90 minutes.
But it wasn’t until the third song that she dipped into her back catalogue, and even then it was for a version of an early but not particularly beloved track (Burning Up).
And there were hits sprinkled throughout the set, including Material Girl, Like a Virgin, Holiday, Vogue, to name a few.
But many of these came in un-energetic, charmless arrangements or were lost in Vegas-style medleys. And a preponderance of new songs – some but not all on a par with the best of her older stuff – and also-ran material dragged the show down.
While the pacing lagged, visually the Rebel Heart Tour is about throwing as much stuff against the arena wall as Madonna and her hirelings can think of, and seeing what sticks.
So we get Mike Tyson in an opening video before the star descends in a cage. We get a bunch of tires onstage as a backdrop for the song Body Shop (which was, along with a sweet, carefree version of True Blue, one of the highlights of the set).
We get religious imagery (half-naked nuns and dancers arranged in a Last Supper tableau) for some songs, Art Deco design and Roaring Twenties outfits for a couple of tracks, Spanish dress and flamenco guitar for a few others.
We get a stage in the shape of a cross, a floor-ramp, dancers who reveal their six-packs at the whim of their boss, dancers on swaying poles, fan art projected on the stage-spanning video screen, interludes where the singer herself is nowhere to be seen and we’re left to be entertained by drag queens in the audience, some of whom look more like Madonna than Madonna ever did.
Yet despite, or because of, all of these amateur-hour/drunken millionaire moments, it was kind of a blast to see Madonna let her hair down, or maybe just not give a damn for a while.
Who’s going to stop her if, say, she wants to do shots with comedian Amy Schumer (who was in the audience, along with someone who looked suspiciously like Madonna’s ex Sean Penn) before the show? (Madonna seemed to hint that this might have happened.)
And who if not Madonna has earned the right to indulge herself with a version of La vie en rose on ukulele, dedicated to her 19-year-old daughter? And so what if she wants to shamelessly dip into Jack Benny’s back catalogue for a joke? (“You’ve heard of the three rings that go along with marriage, right? The engagement ring, the wedding ring, and the suffering.” Ba-boom!)
It wasn’t a great concert, but it was a heckuva show.