IN PERFORMANCE

Madonna full of fresh pop at United Center

Madonna sells the United Center out. R. Kelly sets Soul Train Awards record for nominations.

It was a concert that opened with an act of contrition and closed with a robed church choir paving the road to a celebration. In between there was fake blood, pretend guns, the return of the infamous conical bra, whiffs of sadomasochism and poison-tipped political commentary, as well as allusions to the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, movies by Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, Brecht-Weil cabaret, Asian mysticism, Cirque du Soleil-style tightrope acrobatics, and Basque folk music.

Madonna was in town, and though she’s one of the most famous celebrities in the world – and also one of the priciest, as evidenced by those $355 seats – her first of two concerts Wednesday at the United Center had all the hallmarks of a cult artist indulging a serious art-pop fetish.

The easy route would’ve been a greatest hits tour, but even at 54 – something of a godmother to two generations of pop singers from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga – Madonna appears to get bored much too easily to do something that rote. She’s almost perverse in the way she tries to upend and reconfigure her songs to fit a theme, and this was no exception – a self-described two-hour, four-part “journey of a soul from darkness to light.”

Got that? Sometimes it wasn’t always easy to follow Madonna’s lead. Where’s this going, exactly? And how much of this was gratuitous shock theater rather than soul baring personal statement? But there was no denying the blend of art, artifice and sheer sensory overload. Besides the 16 dancers, four musicians and two backing singers, a stage that stretched into the middle of the arena and the sumptuous visuals made for something grandly watchable. It made every other recent arena tour that traffics in spectacle look rather puny in comparison. And somehow, a few emotional payoffs snuck through the dazzle, too.

Once regarded as a chirpy ingénue destined to burn up her 15 minutes and fade, Madonna has turned reinvention into 300 million worldwide record sales and nearly 30 years of stardom. She has taken a few knocks this year as her latest album, “MDNA” has tumbled down the charts soon after a muddled halftime performance at the Super Bowl.

Though the album was panned as a late, unsuccessful attempt to ride the coattails of the burgeoning electronic dance music movement, it was sold short. It was that rare recent Madonna album with an emotional center, with several songs zeroing in on the toll of her broken marriage, and that filtered into her performance Wednesday.

Her concert tours use music as just one of many elements in a multimedia scramble of dance, performance art, theater and video, and “MDNA” was no exception. The visually spectacular first segment was set in a Gothic cathedral with shafts of light piercing through the “windows” and hooded monks ringing a bell and burning incense, suggesting some strange hybrid of Kubrick’s ritualistic sex scenes in “Eyes Wide Shut” and a foreboding Medieval ceremony. The set morphed into a tawdry hotel straight out of Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” with Madonna gunning down masked assailants with disturbing glee, smearing the joint with blood and curse-splattered bravado. The music rumbled with menace, Madonna’s voice Auto-tuned almost beyond recognition, the once-bouncy “Papa Don’t Preach” and the exuberant “Hung Up” slowed and twisted to a crawl.

A parade of drummers, some of them suspended from ceiling wires to make it seem as though they were floating above the stage, exuberantly flushed out the bad vibes on “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” Segment 2 was more organic, and exuded a highly unusual quality for a Madonna tour: something like warmth. She still uses her guitar, which was often barely audible, as more of a prop than an instrument, and her voice remains thin. But her dancing was energetic, and at times astonishingly athletic. “Open Your Heart” inspired an ensemble performance that suggested a mating of gypsy kicks and hip-hop break dancing.

The next segment was all ice-queen Berlin cabaret, topped by an oddly moving, slowed-nearly-beyond-recognition “Like a Virgin.” Here was Madonna’s signature song (or at least one of them) sung from the perspective of a much older woman looking back on her life, trying to conjure up a feeling she could barely remember, let alone ever experience again. It concluded with a tortured, erotic ballet involving Madonna, another dancer and a corset. A vulnerable Madonna? You saw it here first.  

After that, the singer sent her fans home dancing with the sound of sitars on “I’m a Sinner,” a choir on “Like a Prayer,” and an aerobics class sponsored by Kraftwerk on “Celebration.” Amid a fleet of fluorescent modules, she was briefly the dance-pop icon of the ‘80s and ‘90s again. Some of her fans would surely be glad if she stayed there for an entire concert. But for Madonna that would mean turning into a nostalgia act, and she’s not having it.

greg@gregkot.com

Madonna set list Wednesday at the United Center:

1. The Prayer Overture: Act of Contrition

2. Girl Gone Wild

3. Revolver

4. Gang Bang

5. Papa Don't Preach

6. Hung Up

7. I Don't Give A

8. Express Yourself

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