Live to Tell

Madonna Live Shot, Houston's Minute Maid Park, 11.16.2008

Closer, closer, closer, moans Margaret Dumont. If I were any closer, cracks Groucho Marx, I’d be in back of you….

That’s what ninth row, dead center, up against the railing to the stage extension last night in Houston’s Minute Maid Park felt like. When Madonna repeatedly leaned out into the audience on our side of the proscenium, she was no more than five feet away. Practically getting a lap dance from the 50-year-old dynamo vaporizes most notions of objectivity. That’s my jaw down amongst the detritus on the sold-out stadium floor.

As the concert’s opening set piece swiveled to reveal Madonna sitting Sharon Stone/Basic Instinct-style on a throne, the singer’s blazing blue eyes and not her crotch held your gaze with tractor beam force. At close range, her real-life charisma reveals video no match or even apt representation of the singer’s unblemished girlishness and mischievous vulnerability. In such intimate proximity, one’s wide-eyed stare – again, held as tight as her thighs and quadriceps – picks up an even more awe-inspiring detail: At no point during the two-hour cardio overhaul did she ever break a sweat or even breathe hard. Of Montreal’s Barnum & Bailey blowout at Austin’s Fiesta Gardens last Thursday night might as well have been a puppet show compared to the West Side Story Madonna brought.

Of course, such minutely choreographed electro-pulsation translates into a high percentage of vocals not being live, a fact Madonna made no effort to conceal by fourth pelvic thrust “Vogue.” Ramming home the point was the following “Die Another Day,” for which the star yielded the stage entirely to a fake boxing match out on the satellite rostrum. Then came “Into the Groove” and Madonna’s assertion, as she pointed to her privates, “Live out your fantasy here with me - you can’t touch this.”

The rock-you-up mix of “Borderline,” featuring one of myriad Madonna guitar moments (this one a purple Gibson SG), flexed 25 years of nostalgia with honest to goodness hot vox, and in interludes throughout the evening when the singer stopped long enough to sing, she reigned supreme. “You Must Love Me,” from Evita, which followed a gypsy disco take of “La Isla Bonita” and its ethnomusicology extension “Doli Doli,” found the leading lady straddling a stool on the platform stage circled by two guitarists, a searing fiddler, and accordionist as she torched up a big-screen vocal.

Otherwise, Broadway iconography dominated the spectacle and spectacular. “Devil Won’t Recognize You,” from Madonna’s recent Hard Candy cavity, splayed the singer in a black robe, on a piano, at the center of a translucent cone of simulated rain. “Are you guys having a good time?” she crowed afterwards. “I need you to have a good time. Play your cards right and I’ll come back.” As show number 13 of a total 18 North American tour dates according to the souvenir concert tees, that’s unlikely. “Miles Away,” another new tune with a sincere vocalization, seems more likely for the re-divorcee.

Finale preps “Like a Prayer” and “Ray of Light” blinded by both light and sound, gave way to the star's mostly a cappella front-row request fulfillment of “Secret,” the front of the house matching Madonna’s line deliveries in call and response. “Alright Texas! That was really good,” she acknowledged. “I’d forgotten that song.” Her grinding her backside against a black guitar on two Orange amplifiers during “Hung Up,” then high-kicking pep rally closer “Give It to Me” aren’t images easily unrecalled. As the house lights went up, so did Lady Ciccone’s forever effervescent “Holiday” on the P.A. Celebrate Madonna.

Set-list, Houston's Minute Maid Park, 11.16.2008

Candy Shop/Beat Goes On/Human Nature/Vogue/Die Another Day/Into the Groove/Heartbeat/Borderline/She's Not Me/Music/Rain/Devil Won't Recognize You/Spanish Lesson/Miles Away/La Isla Bonita/Doli Doli/You Must Love Me/Get Stupid/4 Minutes/Like a Prayer/Ray of Light/Secret/Hung Up/Give It To Me

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