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Dec 15 2023
We'll Remember: A Review Of Madonna's Wonderful, Wild CELEBRATION TOUR Comments (0)

Madonna-celebration-matthew-rettenmund-IMG_0192 copyComing together ... in every nation. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

Wednesday night marked Madonna's first Celebration Tour date in North America, two months after she opened her international victory lap in London.

I've seen Madonna live many times, including when we were both a lot younger, so it was never really my hope that she would be at her absolute peak. Rather, after she spent the early part of the year looking unwell and the middle part being very unwell, all I needed from the Queen of Pop was proof of life, a reassurance the party was still happening, if not in full swing.

But Madonna had other plans.

Never one to rest on her laurels, having painted herself into a corner from which she could only tour if she were willing to not so much rest on them as air them out, she decided to swing them around and smack us upside the head with them. She had agreed to a hits tour — the only type of large-scale tour her audience was demanding — but instead, clearly influenced by exhaustive self-research into her stalled biopic, Madonna cooked up a complex, dizzying visual and sonic memoir, one she further resolved to push herself through shortly after nearly dying.

It was just this past summer that an infection left her comatose for five two days, quite literally very close to joining her contemporaries Michael Jackson and Prince in the gone too soon club. Advised to take a year off to recover, she took off only a few months, regained her strength, plunged into tour prep and embarked upon this jaunt. From celebration of life to Celebration, she has done it with alarming speed, admirable alacrity and true-blue grit. For the umpteenth time in her four-decade career (“Forty YEARS, motherfuckers! Do the math!” she commanded us at Barclays Center. The math checks out.), Madonna did something physically daunting and creatively inspiring — and turned the standard legacy tour on its head.

* with ramos boycultureHanging with fan Juan Ramos. First met him at Madonna Xpo in 1993! (Image via Juan Ramos)

Matthew-rettenmund-madonna-boycultureWith my buddies Lav & Jason & Madonna (Images by Matthew Rettenmund & Jason Viers)

Anthony-coombs-rettenmund-john-d-lee-viers-boycultureWith John, Anthony & Jason — the after-party for us was a subway. (Image by John D. Lee)

We arrived to the venue around 7:45. It took a beat to get in, sharing air with a girl dressed in a wedding dress and boys dressed in pretty much everything but suits custom-made in London, and we took our time strolling around the arena and scouting the merch. Heads-up: There was nothing special or new on Wednesday, yet by Thursday a.m., the pop-up shop on the premises had gold and silver rosaries ($200 each!), Erotica masks, new buttons and new lithographs.

Madonna-celebration-elevator-boycultureUp Down Suite (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

I ran into so many pals and fellow longtime Madonna fanatics, plus so many casual fans who I knew would be whining about tardiness at 1 minute past the stated time on the ticket. Let's get this over with now — Madonna is often late. It doesn't mean she is rude, it doesn't mean she disrespects you. Last night, she reportedly had a tech issue (believable, considering she talked about the sound at least three times during her performance), but even when she doesn't, she's usually on an hour after the stated time, sometimes two. Last night, it was two hours and 20 minutes after. You have every right to worry about this if you have transportation, health, babysitting or beauty-sleep issues, but if your first question on every Madonna post is about when she goes on, or you're using her late arrivals to dunk on her for unrelated reasons, you need to rethink priorities.

What time did she go on? Google it.

Our seats were heaven-sent — row three directly alongside the central catwalk. The people around us were okay, though two women had to be separated (I saw a rare-for-2o23 talk-to-the-hand gesture), and the smallish arena bubbled with anticipation. Even when her appearance was delayed, the crowd responded by doing the Wave. We are old now.

Honey Dijon was spinning for about an hour, which was festive enough.

Bob-madonna-debi-mazar-IMG_0026 SPLASH copyQueen girls — Bob and Debi Mazar, via projection (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

At 10:45, Bob the Drag Queen stormed through the crowd in a replica of his boss's MTV VMAs “Vogue” gown, looking like a particularly statuesque toilet paper cozy and effortlessly hyping us up in anticipation of Madonna's imminent arrival. Bob serves as more than just a hype person for the show, returning intermittently at pivotal moments, a true MVP.

Madonna-celebration-tour-boycultureMadonna matters (Images by MGM/Matthew Rettenmund)

The main event began with an eye-popping entrance by Madonna, swathed in a black kimono and wearing that fetching headpiece reminiscent of Hedy Lamarr's in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), yet only just; it's a gorgeous costume, and an original, like its wearer.

Madonna-celebration-IMG_0033 splash copyOne of her most exquisite ensembles ever (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

Madonna sounded fantastic singing “Nothing Really Matters,” and was clearly actually singing. She looked exquisite. It was the night's second-most flattering look, and if I had not known to expect it, the miraculous “Nothing Really Matters” — only a U.S. #93 Hot 100 entry —was at once a surprising and thoroughly Madonna choice to kick off a career of hit after hit. It was a thrilling opener, against all odds.

Madonna-marvin-gofin-celebration-IMG_0084 splash copyThe look of I LOVE MARVIN GOFIN! One of her best dancers ever. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

The first, celebratory, section was a rapid-fire crowd-pleaser consisting of “Everybody,” “Into the Groove,” “Burning Up,” “Open Your Heart” and “Holiday,” a dizzying array of her very best pop songs, several of which at one point seemed destined never to be aired live again. In the night's best look — long, wavy hair, an '80s jacket and lotsa leg — Madonna skipped the light fantastic, breezing along the catwalk with an ease that made no sense for a person who might've been on one of those Stars We Lost in 2023 lists were it not for a stroke of good luck or maybe good genes.

In her first speech, she positively gushed about being back home in New York, literally adding “I Love New York to the mix, and introduced one of the night's stand-in Madonnas, an artfully masked dancer dressed similarly to her fabled first performance at Danceteria.

Madonna-celebration-boycultureHer emotion when singing about her AIDS losses was palpable. (Images by Matthew Rettenmund)

Madonna-haring-flynn-celebration-IMG_0106 copyA one-woman AIDS memorial (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

Things ground to a halt in order for Madonna to remind us that AIDS once decimated our community — her community — via the show's most unforgettable set piece, her vocally flawless performance of “Live to Tell” set against vast projections of famous faces lost to the disease, and lost to Madonna, including her dance instructor Christopher Flynn, artist Keith Haring, her Bloodhounds of Broadway director Howard Brookner, her Blond Ambition Tour dancer Gabriel Trupin, and the list goes on and on, exponentially so. Madonna's collab with The AIDS Memorial was — as reported — deeply moving, and bled into one of her most dazzling performances of “Like a Prayer.“

Madonna-celebration-rettenmund-IMG_0164 copyThis reminded me of The Rebel Heart Tour's opener (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

Playing hide and seek in a revolving chamber of neon-lit crosses, Madonna moved between the structure's glass pillars like a reverse Medusa looking to eyeball her prey as her dancers hung like sexy bats above. Her vocal was spot-on, and the song, offered to us so many times, was offered yet again, as if for the very first time.

David banda prince madonna boycultureIMG_0182 splash copyMadonna's son David was a Prince stand-in. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

A provocative taste of “Living for Love” announced sexy time, a boxing-themed (Girlie Show, round 2) “Erotica” (the vocal seem canned) and “Justify My Love” (same). She looked damn good in her boxing duds, and better still in a crimson slip that came in handy when she encountered another Madonna, this one in her gold Blond Ambition “Like a Virgin” basque. The young Madonna helped the not young Madonna masturbate. Horned in a trunk. It was a recreation of one of her all-time most shocking performances, and segued into an onstage simulated orgy.

Madonna-celebration-IMG_0193 copyThese sisters were doin' it for their selves. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

I felt the next three numbers were the best of the bunch, outside of “Live to Tell.”

Screenshot 2023-12-14 at 6.48.30 AM splash
Screenshot 2023-12-14 at 6.48.30 AM splashShe gave us (a bit of) Fever ... (Images by Matthew Rettenmund)

First up, Madonna shimmied through “Hung Up on Tokischa” and the original “Hung Up,” a rousing performance of a song that came out nearly 25 years into her recording career and yet that has earned a rightful place among the best of her best.

Madonna-mercy-james-celebration-IMG_0262 splash copyHave Mercy! (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

It was followed by my single favorite of the night, a long-overdue “Bad Girl.” Madonna has never sounded more suited to a song. As perfect as it was on SNL decades ago, listening to and watching Madonna sing it as her daughter Mercy James played a piano elevated this performance considerably.

Barely recovering from that highlight, we got the next — a sassy “Vogue” featuring Madonna in a Gaultier bullet-braed corset that made her look like a human high-end perfume bottle in a Marilyn wig. Glamour, baby! The vogueing ball was a blast, with Madonna absolutely eating up that stage, having the time of her life with her special guest ... her lover Josh Popper!

Josh-popper-boyculture-madonnaHe 10 ... or 9.5 is fine, too. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

They canoodled while pretending to judge the show's dancers, including a spotlight performance by her daughter Estere. In the same way her newest “Like a Prayer” was like a dream to me, her newest “Vogue” served cunt anew.

At the end, she posed for a pic onstage with Mercy, her son David and Josh.

Madonna-dont-tell-me-matthew IMG_0286 copyDos and “Don'ts” (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

I thought “Human Nature” and “Crazy for You,” up next, felt awkwardly placed, but sue me, “Die Another Day” was a highlight for me, with Madonna and her dancers performing elaborate hand choreography in witch-like togs.

“Don't Tell Me,” starring Madonna the cowgirl, was one of the night's easiest-to-love numbers. Madonna looked great in her cowboy hat, danced impressively the song's original choreography, and saved some of the country twang for an impassioned “Mother and Father,” perhaps my favorite track on American Life. As deep as “Live to Tell” was, with its projections, try Madonna staring up longingly at an image of her dead mother.


Madonna-mom-celebration-IMG_0304 SPLASH copyThe mother of all mothers (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

A lovely acoustic cover of Gloria Gaynor's “I Will Survive” (a song I recall Madonna having been described as loving by her ex, Norris Burroughs, in a long-ago memoir) would not have been missed had it been replaced by, say, “Express Yourself,” but it was damn solid vocally and thematically.

Madonna-celebration-dont-tell-me-boycultureRay of lights (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

I continue to be amazed that “La Isla Bonita” is so damn beloved, but it is! Madonna sailed through it with ease as the audience moved and grooved.

A snippet of “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina” was a natural next step, and while she sounded more or less as she did in the movie — her interpretation of the song being more fragile than Hurricane Patti LuPone's brutally definitive take — it was her shakiest singing and mercifully camouflaged by her wearing of an LGBTQ+ flag.

Madonna-evita-boyculture-celebrationEva Perón continues to be overestimated. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

For “Bedtime Story,” Madonna was poured into a mirrored bodysuit and inventively writhed in a high-tech box that displayed her famous body on its sides. Speaking of boxes, you haven't lived until you've watched Madonna belt “Ray of Light” while chained to a box flying overhead. She has been killing the song nightly, in the best way. There's just no way she will ever again sing this one this well. Right?!

Madonna-bedtime-story-boyculturePast my “Bedtime” (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

There was time for one last emotional beat, a very pretty “Rain.” (Donna DeLory and Niki Haris are in NYC in January, perhaps they should ...) Interestingly, Madonna's long, straight wig and minimal interpretation of this warm hit reminded me of her Brits performance of the previous song, “Bedtime Story,” complete with fans. As in the kind that blow, not as in “I'm not one of your —”

The less said about an in-silhouette, non-sung portrayal of Madonna and Michael Jackson, the better. It's about as good an idea as that Eurythmics interstitial in the midst of the Sticky & Sweet Tour. I don't even count it as part of the show.

Madonna-celebration-boyculture-bitchI don't love the melty-Madonna images on shirts, but I LOVE them on the stage. (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

If I have one reasonable complaint about Celebration (I have a few, none really worth airing), it's that the finale has so, so much potential to be orgiastically satisfying but instead is just ... nice. I am a huge fan of “Bitch I'm Madonna” (as is Madonna, who wisely knows it was, until “Popular, her biggest latter-day hit) and I am also a huge fan of her glam Grey Gardens look that accompanies it. The combo is giddiness personified, almost like a screwball comedy in human form — Ciccone Goes Wild!

Then, just when things could explode — c'mon, “Celebration” is a white-hot shoulda-been hit — we get a partial song and buh-byes. I'm totally fine with Madonna's hard outs, but man alive, I could have used a full “Celebration” to top off Celebration.

It was a rare misstep in a glorious night that might never have happened. I sound like Madonna's cabalistic advice is rubbing off, but nights like this really do make you grateful for what is rather than stressing about what might have been.

She's still got it, and we're still getting it.