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Madonna at Xcel Energy Center, 11/3/12

Madonna at Xcel Energy Center, 11/3/12
Photo by Tony Nelson

Madonna
With Paul Oakenfold
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nothing came easy while Madonna performed at Xcel Energy Center Saturday. For anyone other than the ticket-holding masochists in the crowd, it was two hours of uncomfortable boot-licking. The few, hard-won pleasures came between long blocks of befuddlement and languor. And, maddeningly, it appeared to be completely by design.

"It's been a long time, Minnesota," she told us, in one of a few less-structured spoken passages. "It's been too long, Minnesota. Sorry it took me so long to come back." This was the first of two MDNA World Tour stops in St. Paul -- her last performance in the Twin Cities came in '87 -- and the 54-year-old pop icon had all of her stage faculties in order. She could still sing, move, proselytize, and churn up a crowd more ably than 99 percent of the today's Top 40 offerings, but often didn't deliver when it came to song selection or presentation.

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Slideshow: Madonna at Xcel Energy Center, 11/3/12
Madonna urges Minnesota fans: "Vote No on the Marriage Amendment!" [VIDEO]

Not to say that the two-hour expedition through Madonna's artistic stream-of consciousness was dull. Straight out of a Dan Brown wet dream, the ever-reconfiguring stage began as a cathedral with incense smoke puffing from a dangling golden censer almost as big as a Smart Car. The motifs on massive video screens and the rising stage platforms later shifted to a noirish Paradise Hotel room, a war zone tripwire-meets-tightrope set, a saccharine combo of marching band and Sunday comics, a melange of spooling cassette tapes, a tropical hut, a darkened cabaret, a cemetary, jostling VW buses, among other visual ephemera. And sometimes as many as a couple dozen dancers and musicians helped fill out these elaborate visions.

It was an absolute bludgeoning of costume changes, of motion, of the creative power of Madonna. "Don't go for second-best baby," is her telling line from "Express Yourself" -- one of the few songs in the set that traced back to the singer's first decade as a star. This was during the drum line portion of the evening (and when City Pages was permitted to take photos) and with a baton twirling in hand, she roused the crowd with a jubilant red-and-white troupe and even a little booty-clapping.

Madonna at Xcel Energy Center, 11/3/12

 

Madonna at Xcel Energy Center, 11/3/12
Madonna at Xcel Energy Center, 11/3/12
Photos by Tony Nelson

There was was nothing second-best about this moment in the night's chameleon act, but an intentional slide into the lyrics from Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" -- very similar melody, as you might recall -- planted the presumed heiress to her Madgesty's throne in mind from then on. Yes, it's known that Gaga's lifted liberally from this specific pop template for her whole career, but who wants to think about that when witnessing the resilient queen mother?

 

A generation of artists -- female and male -- can attribute many of their successes to emulating Madonna's long-cultivated abilities to shock, inspire, and thrill. It seemed a wasted and predictable way to go after Gaga. She should've just blown our brains out with a healthier combination of the albums upon albums gushing with hook-filled creations to prove superiority. Instead, we got her wielding a pistol for endless killings of her backup dancers during the middling "Gang Bang" and vibing out Jack Johnson-style on "Masterpiece."

Maybe part of the problem -- for a Minnesota audience, in any case -- is that we've missed 25 years of her live development. (And the setlist loaded with mostly recent material was pretty much fixed for this entire tour.) Any moment that a sliver of sentimentality came up in the set, even just the montage of earlier hits that played a few seconds at a time before the rote "Turn Up the Radio" began, was met with a surge of exuberance. Thus, a Paul Simon's Graceland-ish take on "Open Your Heart" was rapturous, and a powerful run through "Vogue" erased all of the damage done by some Juggalo-looking dancers polka-ing at the tip of the catwalk during "Justify My Love." And the choral rendering of "Like a Prayer" shook the heavens, finally.

Madonna at Xcel Energy Center, 11/3/12
Photo by Tony Nelson

But the true highs of the night, AKA when our chapped boot-licking tongues finally felt a cool salve, were when Madonna reminded us that she was literally beating the shit out of herself for us too. She even hiked down her pants to show off the bruises on her ass to confirm this.

With little more than a pianist wearing a top hat, and later a single accompanying dancer, she performed lounge-y versions of "Like a Virgin" and the choicest MDNA track, "Love Spent," while writhing on the catwalk in a too-tight black girdle and lingerie. She grasped for crumpled up dollar bills and at times set her microphone down to bat at it with her tongue. It was gorgeous, brutal, and far more urgent than the evening's club-oriented filler. Had she let her singular power be the night's focus, it would've been a better show, by traditional standards. But there's a small part of us that can respect her for not giving us exactly what we wanted either.

The Opener: The 49-year-old British DJ/producer Paul Oakenfold as an opening act added little to the show. Aside from some half-hearted pointing into the crowd, and a few bored flaps of his arms, he could've been checking his stock portfolio behind his LED-lit booth while predictable remixes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, the White Stripes, Fun., and Rihanna boomed out of his playlist.

Personal Bias: My Madonna fandom traces back to late-'80s MTV viewings, and I would've melted to hear "Frozen."

The Crowd: Sequin-covered girls' night out mode, many of them dressed like Madonna. Wedding veils, fingerless gloves, blonde wigs, and MDNA football jerseys were all in play to show devotion.  

By the Way: In 2012, the internet creates our daily dose of controversy in a way that rap, metal, and Madonna did 20 years ago. Today, we're left with a still-brilliant pop artist who hungers for the headlines with now-familiar talking points. She gave a lengthy speech about voting for Obama in Tuesday's election and regarding the Vote No campaign against the Marriage Amendment. Video of her talk is here.

Setlist:
Girl Gone Wild
Revolver
Gang Bang
Papa Don't Preach
Hung Up
I Don't Give A *
Best Friend
Express Yourself
Give Me All Your Luvin'
Turn Up the Radio
Open Your Heart
Sagara Jo
Masterpiece
Justify My Love
Vogue
The Erotic Candy Shop
Human Nature
Like a Virgin/ Love Spent
Nobody Knows Me
I'm Addicted
I'm a Sinner
Like a Prayer

Encore:

Celebration


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