Madonna has always been a wee bit condescending toward Sin City. Last night at her usual local stomping ground, the MGM Grand Garden, she implored her nearly sold-out throng to participate, adding "I don't care how drunk you are, Las Vegas, sing along!" Later, during another banter break, she asked, "Is Las Vegas a place you're from?"
In her defense, a quick survey of those closest to the stage surfaced not one Las Vegan. (Even Venezeula represented.) And, in the crowd's defense, they gave her what she wanted during a Mumford & Sons-like treatment of the 1986 hit "Open Your Heart," leaving her smiling through the performance and, during an extended standing ovation, repeatedly thanking Las Vegas, a city she's publicly derided for its occasionally distracted or ambivalent audiences at her concerts. "I like it when people make an effort," she said, and we accepted the backhanded compliment.
At any rate, it's hard to match her own effort. Madonna is not only a consummate performer, she's a multitasker extraordinaire onstage, and it's exceedingly rare to see her plant herself behind a microphone and just sing the song. That has always been her modus operandi when it comes to her concerts, but at 54 — whether overcompensating, trying to earn or justify her lofty ticket prices, or showing up her countless imitators — she seems even more physical and omnipresent on stage than ever. As much as the show's visual components — which included the requisite dancers, video screens, EDC-like laser and lighting displays, and risable platforms — blended with her performance, there was no taking your eyes off the Queen.
There she was, the gun-wielding debutante fighting off potential apprehenders a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, during "Gang Bang," the most dynamic and daring song from this year's otherwise lightweight MDNA album. And leading a cheerleading squad for "Give Me All Your Luvin." And straddling a piano while a stone-face pianist — unwittingly positioned in between Madge's legs — provides the sole music for a torchy take on "Like a Virgin." And, as has been her wont over the past 11 years, banging out a couple of chords on guitar, as she did for the catchiest of her new songs, "Turn Up the Radio" and "I'm a Sinner." As on 2008's Sticky and Sweet Tour, the theatricality and jubilee on stage made her weaker material (which, thankfully, was more likely to feature Madonna lip-syncing than the favorites) more dynamic — and more engrossing.
While the new material was largely performed as it's heard on the album, save the additions the live Basque drum trio Kalakan or recorded samples, the older material was always reinterpreted, a long-standing concert practice of hers that makes her peers (Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, the latter also on the receiving end of faint praise last night during "Express Yourself") look artistically lazy in comparison. To merely play "Like a Prayer" as it was heard back in 1989 would be boring and purely a nostalgia grab. A raved-up version of it was the climax of the Sticky and Sweet concert, and though it returned to both the song's gospel roots for last night's show — she literally brought out a choir — it was still a remixed version, and it perfectly bridged the show's two dominant themes, spirituality and dance-music culture.
Just as "Prayer" spelled out the former theme — which got heavy-handed at times; one attendee behind me snarked during the Gregorian Chant intro that Madonna "still has issues" — closer "Celebration" did the same for the latter. Madonna even positioned herself behind a fake DJ booth before being lowered with her large cast beneath the stage. Purists might have grimaced, but for all DJs have done for the dance icon's career, the nod implied gratitude. It even felt like a hat-tip to our own exploding nightlife scene, DJs having become the new superstars of the Strip. Then again, Madonna being Madonna, she might've just been archly affirming what a real superstar looks like. We'll give her that one, too.