Madonna was terrific.
In the course of setting an attendance record at the Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday night, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, the hottest pop act in the business right now, also set her critics on their duffs by living up to the hype surrounding her.
Madonna's hour-long show, all peak and no valleys, was full of the bright, danceable techno-rock her fans have come to expect. A crackerjack band, powered by drummer Jonathan "Sugarfoot" Moffett and a triple keyboard attack, provided her with a big, deep cushion of sound from which to bounce her bright, sassy melodies.
The revelation was in just how powerful and assured a performer Madonna has become on this, her very first tour. She sang with a depth and conviction missing from her records, danced with an intriguing blend of precision and abandon and exhibited total control of the stage. Those who wrote Madonna off as a sterile studio confection or a pop tart symbolic of MTVideocy couldn't have been more wrong: she is a charismatic star with legitimate talent. She's "shiny and new," as one of her songs says, and she's delivering on the promise at the very same time she's unveiling unbounded potential.
There seemed to be at least 10,000 aspiring Madonnas among the sea of 13,000 rabid fans who jammed the Columbia facility for this particular leg of the "Virgin Tour," and what they got was a stylish, jet-paced program that never let up in its energies. Madonna herself was a swirl of perpetual motion, leaving the stage only to change costumes and, presumably, catch her breath, something she seemed unwilling to let the audience do.
And she looked terrific, opening the show in a flashy graffiti-laden jacket and micro-miniskirt that barely covered purple stockings and a see-through harness that flew this way and that in reaction to her dance postures. Later, she changed to a basic black version of same, before emerging for an encore of "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl" in a wedding gown by way of Frederick's of Hollywood.
All these outfits were garnished with lace, crucifixes and bracelets, purposefully trashy ornamentation on self-defined imagery. Madonna once admitted trying to look the way Ronnie Spector sounded in the heyday of the girl groups: by doing so she has singlehandledly saved America's thrift-shop industry and excited the imaginations of millions of young girls to whom she is a more accessible role model than male pop icons such as Prince, Michael Jackson and Boy George.
While Madonna has had her share of top-20 singles, she manages to make all her songs sound like hits. In concert, the distance between bona fide hits like "Get Into the Groove," "Lucky Star," "Holiday," "Crazy for You" and "Borderline" and wanna-be's like "Over and Over," "Angel," "Dress You Up" and "Burning Up" was minimal. Where she has at times sounded thin on records, Madonna sounded huskier live, her voice dipping to a harder register, losing most of its wavering pitch and cloying nasality, and gaining a genuinely seductive edge.
As a dancer, Madonna was unflaggingly energetic. Aided by two male dancers, who also provided backup vocals, she suggested a confluence of old-fashioned "Shindig"-style dancing and contemporary video choreography, with an extra dose of belly-thrusting to reflect her championing of the midriff. Each song was a little production number, with plenty of bows to the smooth and sultry Motown routines of the '60s. While much of the concert came across as Night of the Living Videos, it was a warming, aggressive extension of the static video imagery that helped make Madonna a star in the first place.
And since so much of the music had an irresistible dance sensibility, the audience, on its feet from the first note, did a fair amount of dancing in place. Mostly teen-agers, and predominantly girls, they got into the groove and stayed there through the show. The Post Pavilion will be hard pressed to match that energy during the rest of its summer season.
There were only a few moments of obnoxious sexuality, the kind that parents are likely to weigh against Madonna. She seemed to be putting on Prince's writhing-on-the-floor routine and injected a dose of "Billie Jean" into "Like a Virgin." Still, what emerged was less erotic than athletic.
Mostly, Madonna celebrated her own sensuality. She is cheeky, something of a vamp, but very much in control. On "Like a Virgin," she prowled the stage like a lioness, and several times the whirling dervish abandon of her dance seemed genuine rather than staged.
Madonna is also capable of poking some serious fun at herself. That was the case on both "Virgin" and "Material World." On the latter, Madonna assumed her helium voice and camped things up delightfully, as if the best laugh is the one you can have on yourself. She tossed fake money into the audience and generally took advantage of her natural gifts as a comedian.
Technically, the show was outstanding. The staging, the lighting, the sound were all sharp and sleek, and the band, though uncredited, provided a consistently sinuous pulse that kept the buzz alive. But it was Madonna who met the challenge of her hype head-on and emerged as a thoroughly engaging performer able to transform immense confidence into an hour's worth of pop exaltation.