June 02, 2004
By Spencer Patterson - LAS VEGAS SUN
Madonna may not possess Mariah's voice, Beyonce's curves or Britney's teen appeal, but all three younger divas could have learned a few tricks from the 45-year-old mother of two Saturday night.
Simply put, Madonna's concert -- the first of her two weekend shows at the MGM Grand Garden Arena -- was the most entertaining large-scale musical production to come through town in months.
The fourth stop on Madonna's 2004 "Re-Invention Tour" was far more successful than reports out of Los Angeles (site of the first three shows) might have suggested.
Perhaps the headliner had finally shaken a pesky stomach flu that caused her to postpone Tuesday's scheduled performance in L.A.
Or maybe four nights in, Madonna and her army of musicians, vocalists, dancers and acrobats had grown comfortable with the rigors of the high-energy event, which lasted nearly two hours.
Either way, a sold-out crowd of 14,000 appeared all but unanimous in their approval on Saturday, grinning madly as they exited the arena covered in red and white confetti.
All but a few of the vocalists' eldest fans stayed until the last note of closing number, "Holiday." That stood in sharp contrast to recent local appearances by Spears and Beyonce, which had hundreds flocking to the exits early.
Madonna maintained her audience's attention even when she was offstage for four costume changes, as her band continued playing while break dancers, trapezists and even a skateboarder performed.
That live entertainment filled breaks much better than the momentum-sapping video montages utilized by Spears, Beyonce and Cher at their 2004 tour stops in Las Vegas.
Far less sexually provocative than her reputation suggested, Madonna's show instead made its mark with an unsettling blend of political and religious imagery on three giant screens, and two slightly smaller ones, comprising the stage's backdrop.
Some of the visuals proved quite effective. Sad as it was to see a young girl in the crowd bury her head in her father's side as camouflage-clad dancers twirled rifles and explosions sounded during "American Life," she's unlikely to forget the song's anti-war message.
And though it may have been a tad heavy-handed, Madonna's cover of John Lennon's "Imagine" -- complete with footage of dead and wounded children in combat locales -- elicited some of the night's loudest cheers.
Other times, Madonna's themes were too cryptic to have an impact. Hebrew lettering -- a symbol of the singer's devotion to Kabbalism, generally referred to as "Jewish mysticism" -- accompanied several numbers but was left untranslated.
A shot of Israeli and Palestinian youths walking together with arms entwined was moving, but a doctored photo of George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein smoking cigars together only seemed to confuse many in the crowd.
And images of Jesus on the cross during "Mother and Father" seemed depressingly out of place at a concert intended to be festive.
Physically, Madonna appeared quite fit, although she sported a black wrap on her left knee and an Ace bandage on her right forearm. She smiled often as she worked through dance numbers, played electric and acoustic guitars and sang songs from all periods of
her 21-year career.
As the tour's moniker indicated, the concert featured reworked versions of several of Madonna's biggest hits. She turned 1992's "Deeper & Deeper" into a cabaret-style lounge number and 1983's "Burning Up" into a metallic rocker, while 1984's "Into the Groove"
featured altered lyrics and a recorded cameo by rapper Missy Elliott.
Surprisingly, it was Madonna's newer material that often packed the most punch, however. The thumping techno beats of last year's "Nobody Knows Me" and 2002's "Die Another Day" got the crowd moving, while 2000's "Music" even brought two middle-aged women out
of their seats for the only time all night.
The show sagged somewhat during its middle act, as fans sat down during a run of less familiar numbers. "Like a Prayer," Madonna's megahit from 1989, signaled
a return to form.
"OK, you people sitting down, this will not do," Madonna announced at the start of that song. "I'm spoiled. People do not sit down at my shows."
Vocally, Madonna sounded confident and assured. Though she was almost certainly backed by a taped version of herself at points, she appeared to do most of the actual singing live, as evidenced by a couple of cracks in her voice during 1985's "Crazy for You."
That provided a final lesson for Spears and her lip-syncing clones on the scene today: whatever the outcome, a crowd will always respect an honest effort far more than recorded "perfection."