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The Queen of Pop’s long-awaited, and then abruptly postponed, Celebration Tour has finally kicked off in London and DNA’s Marc Andrews was there to strike a pose…and write this exclusive report too!
Madonna’s current global Celebration Tour extravaganza has been a long time coming. Over 40 years, in fact, as it’s a rollicking slip, dip and trip back through her decades of hits, headline-hitting controversies and historic pop culture moments. It suffered a serious delay due to its star being hospitalised some months ago for what Madonna herself has never quite clarified, but later revealed was a “near-death experience”.
The Queen of Pop admitted to her audience at her opening London night show that even she didn’t think she would make it at one point. Yet here she is, barely a few months later, looking fresh-faced, in robust health and happy to be alive too. Phew.
Only a week earlier a bunch of RuPaul’s Drag Race queens filled a smaller permutation of London’s O2 Arena, which holds 22,000 at capacity, lip-syncing for their lives to tunes that ironically included a bunch of Madonna classics. As it turns out another Drag Race winner, Bob The Drag Queen, is an integral part of Madonna’s two-hour plus concert, as a kind of narrator/sidekick. The Celebration Tour zips through zillions of her tunes (not all in full) before she boogies off the stage to 2000’s still bourgeoisie and rebel-lovin’ Music.
Wisecracking Bob opens the concert as if we’re actually attending a typical drag show night, wandering gaily through the crowd in a replica of Madonna’s Marie Antoinette dress from her iconic rendition of Vogue at the 1990 MTV Music Awards.
“I love a dramatic moment,” Bob pauses for effect before impending lift-off. “This is not just a show, this is not just a concert, this is not just a party… this is a celebration!”
Up then, through the stage floor, Madonna rises like a symbolic phoenix to Nothing Really Matters. A small but vital hit from 1999; souped-up considerably and sounding better than ever. Madonna, looking radiantly grand, überblonde and like a visiting goddess, is in fine vocal form. The crowd of die-hard Madonna fans are on their feet instantly; as you would expect.
With production maestro Stuart Price in charge of sonics (he was responsible for her last great album, 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor) this is actually more a mega-mix of hits, fan faves and a few quirky curveballs you probably wouldn’t have seen coming. There’s a goofy tribute to the late Michael Jackson, who was once her date to the Oscars, mixing her Like A Virgin with his Billie Jean. We also get served visual shoutouts to David Bowie, Nina Simone and Sinead O’Connor, among other late greats. Plus a rock-tastic moment remembering Prince, with whom Madonna once sung 1989’s Love Song.
As this is Madonna, aka The Great Reinventor, The Celebration Tour was never going to be just a mere run through of her hits as we know and love ‘em. Much careful consideration has been put into not just the show’s running order, but remixing and re-editing songs, or in the case of her 1990 signature hit Vogue, adding Beyoncé’s “Queens Remix” via her 2022 #1 Break My Soul.
“Can I do naughty and provocative things?” Madonna cheekily asks the audience who roar back with a resounding “yes”. She’s being serious, though, as it turns out. “I never forget my roots and neither should you,” she implores us. “Never forget where you come from.”
And that’s what this tour is all about. It’s less a concert and more an autobiographical journey through Madonna’s own tales of the city as a young dancer who came to NYC, made it big as a pop star, then found herself in the midst of an epidemic watching friends die from AIDS.
One of the true (blue) highlights, if not the most moving moment of the entire evening, is Madonna’s tribute to those gone too soon from AIDS during her heart-wrenching ballad, In This Life, segueing into Live To Tell. Snapshots of people who have passed on include her own BFF Martin Burgoyne, her first dance teacher Christopher Flynn, pop art pal Keith Haring and photographer genius Herb Ritts (who directed her giddy 1989 Cherish video).
This whole section was actually created with the permission of @theaidsmemorial on Instagram, who provided the extensive photo library of fallen AIDS victims for this heartfelt homage. The organisation later posted how Madonna’s recognition of their work was, “the greatest honour – so many beautiful people remembered with love. What is remembered really does live on.”
Another Drag Racer, Trinity The Tuck, later posted she was grateful a photo of her mother, who died of AIDS in 1993, was shown during this segment. Trinity thanked Madonna for, “keeping the memory of so many people who lost their lives to AIDS alive!”
At other moments during this (blond) ambitious show it was clear Madonna herself was very moved, not just with the reception from the crowd, but by the mere fact she was a survivor of both 40 years of fame and her recent near-fatal experience. She even appeared to shed real tears during Live To Tell which, lyrically, in many ways echoes her own recent battles.
“I’m still struggling,” she divulged to the audience confessionally. “Stay close to your people, your past and your true self,” she told us before launching into an unexpected, yet touching, rendition of disco classic I Will Survive, using only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. “Did you think I’d lay down and die?” she sang to the audience before stopping suddenly for a moment in the song to ask, “Well, did you?!”.
Another guitar-driven highlight comes when Madonna straps on an electric guitar for early hit Burning Up and goes full rock chick mode. Elsewhere there’s acres of ripped, buff and beautiful semi-naked hunks littered throughout the show, as you would hope for. There’s countless costume changes, though they’re mostly black – perhaps because it’s a flattering colour for her figure these days. Madonna also flies high above the crowd in a bespoke illuminated portal frame a number of times to ensure everyone present gets their own close-up selfie of the Queen of Pop, even those in the “nosebleed” seats way up high.
When a humungous mirrorball is gingerly lowered down onto the stage for a discofied version of Holiday, it becomes glitteringly evident Madonna is concentrating on her vocals during this tour. She dances just enough to stay away from being breathless, but wisely leaves the more complicated choreography to her toned, lithe, young dancing troupe instead.
Other surprises during the show include a brief salty excursion into Sam Smith/Kim Petras’ Unholy duet during the Like A Prayer section, blazing rings of flames on stage during a beastly Justify My Love remix and an unexpected tribute to her past lovers, male and female, including (him again!) Michael Jackson, Vanilla Ice and Dennis Rodman.
Throughout the evening most of Madonna’s six children appear on stage too. Daughter Mercy plays piano impressively for Bad Girl, while handsome 18-year-old son David strums guitar on Don’t Tell Me. One of her younger twin daughters, Estere, even lays down some serious vogueing moves during a fabulous queer-inclusive ballroom scene. On opening night, that also included oldest daughter Lourdes as guest judge. 10s across the board, okay kids?!
Madonna guarantees that she keeps her queer army happy via a tribute to 1969’s Stonewall riots chronicling the birth of gay liberation and, subsequently, Pride (during the Vogue section, naturally). It concludes with Madonna strutting off the stage draped in – what else? – but a rainbow flag. That’s our gay-lovin’ gal!
The dazzling glittersuit she dons towards the end of the night may be a gloriously glitzy creation, but Madonna swiftly brings the crowd back to reality by letting us know she herself is the ultimate paradox – “Sometimes I feel like god and sometimes I feel like shit”. Heavy stuff concertgoers, but given the gravity of the situation Madonna was in just a few months back, this feels like it needed to be said to clear the air.
In case you were also wondering, this over two-hour show features no band on stage and no backing singers – just Madonna, drag queen Bob and her harem of sexy dancers. While there’s plenty of big hits missing (Frozen, Borderline, Express Yourself, Material Girl and Beautiful Stranger to name but five) there’s almost nothing from any of her albums after 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor. Even Madonna must have wisely realised that if you were sticking to the hits then her last four albums (Hard Candy, MDNA, Rebel Heart and Madame X) barely qualify.
Press reviews for the show have already been glowing. Rolling Stone magazine lauded “Queen of Pop Shows Why She Still Owns The Crown”, while the usually staid Guardian newspaper gushed “Queen of Pop Dazzles with Her Greatest Hits”, awarding it 4/5.
The fan response, which is ultimately the most important reaction, was virtually unanimous. The Celebration Tour is not just another Madonna concert, nor is it a Madonna “best of” concert, this is arguably the best Madonna concert of all time. @Madonnaaustralia on Instagram was for once simply speechless, summing up the feeling across the board for fans alike in just four words – “what an incredible show”.
So, how did Madonna actually look up there on the stage at the pensionable age of 65 years?
It’s clear she’s had work done, but then so has virtually every star on the planet her age, so why should she be singled out? What is different this time around on this tour, however, is Madonna seems truly grateful to be performing for her fans and cherishes her audience. She can still get into the groove, probably better than any other pensioner you know, but let’s just hope her knees (and other joints) hold up for the remainder of the 70+ dates.
The all-important merch stands before and after the show were doing a roaring trade, though there was some major grumbling due to the absence of a tour program, which seemed like an odd thing to forget. Still, with T-shirts, tote bags, jackets, posters and crucifixes, there was plenty for any ardent Madonnaholic to go “purse first”, to quote Bob.
While at press time, there was no confirmation of extending this tour down under. It wouldn’t be the first time Madonna has disappointed Aussie fans. She’s only toured Oz twice – in 1993 and 2016 – so could this be third time’s a charm? Here’s hoping her heavenly, hit-packed and history-making Celebration Tour eventually reaches Australian shores sometime in 2024. Madonna, Queen of queens, please justify our love.
The Celebration Tour
Here’s Madonna’s setlist and the year each track was originally released!
- Nothing Really Matters (1998)
- Everybody (1982)
- Into the Groove (1985)
- Burning Up (1983)
- Open Your Heart (1985)
- Holiday (1983)
- In This Life (1992)
- Live To Tell (1985)
- Like A Prayer/Act of Contrition (1989)
- Living for Love (2014)
- Erotica/You Thrill Me (1992)
- Justify My Love (1990)
- Fever (1992)
- Hung Up on Tokisha (2022)/Hung Up (2005)
- Bad Girl (1992)
- Vogue (1990)
- Human Nature (1994)
- Crazy For You (1985)
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Don’t Tell Me (2000)
- Mother and Father (2003)
- I Will Survive (originally by Gloria Gaynor in 1978)
- La Isla Bonita (1985)
- Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (1996)
- Bedtime Story (1994)
- Ray of Light (1998)
- Rain (1992)
- Like A Virgin (1984)
- Bitch I’m Madonna (2015)/Give Me All Your Luvin’ (2012)
- Celebration (2009)
- Music (2000)
Marc Andrews is the author of Madonna: Song By Song book detailing the true blue stories behind every song in Madonna’s back catalogue, plus video/remix info and colour photos. Get it at www.fonthill.media/products/madonna