Madonna’s been using the word paradox to describe her adventurous 2019 studio album “Madame X” and so indeed is her current concert tour, which closed a three-night engagement at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre on Tuesday.
Although the show’s setting was smaller than the arenas she’s filled during her decades as the world’s biggest pop star, it was hardly an intimate or casual affair. True, she chatted with the audience a bit, got a guy named Brad (a drill sergeant from Kansas City in the front) to give her a swig of warm beer and took a single Polaroid selfie, which she sold to another fellow for $4,000, with the money going to charity.
In a welcome nod to theater tradition, photos were not allowed; fans had to lock their phones into bags provided at the entry which were opened upon departure.
Paradoxically both charming and offputting, Madame X made demands of her audience. She asked if they were paying attention, told them to sit the f— down, and, after being distracted by doors at the back of the theater opening, queried, “Did you enjoy this fado club, those who stayed in the room?”
The fado café, her re-creation of her time spent as a soccer mom in Portugal, where she met local musicians and fell in love with their artistry, was a highlight in the middle of the two-and-a-half hour show (which started a half-hour late), a sometimes murky mix of performance art, politics and song.
The segment included the evening’s most joyous number, the call-and-response “Batuka,” featuring the gorgeous, dynamic, singing and hand-drumming, all-woman ensemble Orquestra Batukadeiras from Cape Verde.
“Killers Who Are Partying,” a solemn ode to those who are disenfranchised or facing discrimination, had some Portuguese lyrics, as did the pop-flavored “Crazy,” with accordion.
Singing “Sodade” and accompanying herself on guitar, Madonna explained that the song, popularized by Cesária Évora and sung in Creole, was about longing. Moving to Colombia, Madonna and company performed the catchy dance tune “Medellin,” then closed the club section with the introspective “Extreme Occident.”
The easygoing café was a big contrast to the jam-packed, high-concept start: a silhouetted character typing out James Baldwin’s credo “Artists are here to disturb the peace” as shots were fired, followed by the anti-gun disco-y “God Control,” a wild set piece with Madonna dressed as a founding father facing off with cops wearing riot gear, images of the American flag and video of gun violence. Whew!
“Dark Ballet,” the second number, was even more out there, with Joan of Arc references, religious garb and battles with dancers in gas masks reminiscent of the mice in “Nutcracker,” complete with an electronic alteration of Tchaikovsky’s familiar melody.
A jazzy, percussive version of “Human Nature” from 1994, one of a handful of non-“Madame X” tunes, had shadow images on the back wall and a throng of girls, including Madonna’s young daughters Stella, Estere and Mercy James, serving up MeToo era sentiments as Madge stated, “I’m not your bitch.”
There was an a cappella sing-along of “Express Yourself,” a too short rendition of “Papa Don’t Preach” and a noir-themed version of “Vogue,” with Madonna and dancers in blond wigs and trench coats.
Derided on its 2003 release, the busy rap-filled, social statement “American Life” — wearing her Madame X eye-patch, Madonna played guitar — sounded great and urgent.
“Frozen” was simple and beautiful, sung solo in front of a striking black-and-white video of her daughter Lourdes dancing that filled the theater’s back screen. Next, Madonna’s whole congregation, dressed in colorful flowing robes, convened for the positively upbeat “Come Alive.”
Back in a black robe studded with crosses for the penultimate “Like a Prayer,” Madonna had the audience singing along with religious fervor, before closing with the inspirational “I Rise.”
The tune began, accompanied by powerful video of Parkland demonstrators, and closed as fans on one side of the theater basked in their idol’s glow as Madame X herself exited down an aisle (letting people touch her!), with markedly minimal fanfare.