EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - In a show defined by throbbing dance music, tight choreography, spectacular stage sets and stunning visuals, perhaps the most stirring moment during the kickoff concert to Madonna's "Sticky & Sweet" tour came when the Material Girl stood onstage with just her guitar and a few musicians for an acoustic set.
As she sang the emotional song from her movie "Evita," Madonna couldn't help but wink and smile at the roaring sold-out crowd as she sang the song's main refrain and title: "You must love me."
Maybe that's because she knew she was right. Even the superstar's most cynical critics couldn't walk away from her two-hour extravaganza at the Izod Center on Saturday night without being thoroughly wowed. It was not only the spectacle of the concert, but the performer herself, as she reasserted her musical relevance and dominance in her 25th year in the spotlight.
Madonna is not the world's most gifted singer or dancer or even musician, but she may be its greatest performer. From the moment she first appeared on stage, looking taut and chiseled in a black bra and shorts with a mesh layer overlay, she turned the arena into a massive dance club and a nonstop party. The zooming "Candy Shop," off her most recent CD "Hard Candy," set it off as Madonna strutted onstage flanked by an army of dancers. While they may have executed the show's most intricate dance moves, the ever-fit Madonna dazzled on her own with sinewy steps that belied her AARP-status.
Though the show's first moments were devoted to her new album, it didn't take long for her to seamlessly groove back in time, performing one of her '90s gems, "Human Nature." The already funky, synthesized tune got an even funkier update, as Madonna utilized the vocoder trend with her background vocals. The unapologetic anthem was highlighted by a video that showed Madonna being watched by a security camera in an elevator; as the song went on, Britney Spears' image intertwined with her blonde musical mentor, looking frightened and frail under the camera's lens before striking a decidedly confident pose at the song's end.
It's a testament to Madonna's musical chops that her new music blended so expertly with some of her greatest hits: Elements of "4 Minutes" were mashed up with "Vogue" for a flashback that managed to be both classic and cutting edge. While she sang many of her classics, such as "Like a Prayer," "La Isla Bonita," and "Ray of Life," those moments weren't relegated to short renditions during the retrospective medley part of the show, like many veterans do. They were given full attention with colorful, dazzling displays and new arrangements that made them seem as exciting and fresh as when they first made their debut. "Get Into the Groove" was re-imagined with the help of a DJ, a double-Dutch playing Madonna and cartoons by the late Keith Haring. During one of her many guitar-playing moments, she gave a rocked out performance of "Borderline" to the feverishly energetic crowd.
While the "Sweet & Sticky" tour would have been a triumph in any year, it was particularly impressive coming off her somewhat lackluster "Confessions" two years ago, which seemed more like a labored, carefully designed exercise than a joyful performance.
Not so this time around. Instead of performing at the crowd, she was performing for and with them, bringing them into her world with warmth and appreciation. Even when she scolded the few in the audience who weren't on their feet with unprintable language, she was jovial and endearing.
Jabs at Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — "Sarah Palin is not in my show!" were not daggers, and she even added, "Nothing personal." And the one preachy moment — in which she implored the audience to "save the world" through a series of video images that interspersed the world's atrocities with her ideas hopeful images, including Democratic candidate Barack Obama — wasn't as over the top as might be expected (with the exception of the interloping of video of Republican candidate John McCain in with world dictators and Adolph Hitler).
With her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year and her 50th birthday, it would have been easy for Madonna to turn her latest tour into some kind of nostalgia show. It probably would have been an enjoyable experience nonetheless.
But then again, it wouldn't have been Madonna — the consummate artist who always stretches the limits, exploring new ideas to stay relevant. On Saturday, she proved to be more than relevant — she's still music premier performer.