The last time Madonna performed in London – less than a year ago – she kept fans waiting for an hour past the published start time before opening up her split-screen, Dahl-on-acid candy box. For various reasons, that gig generally wasn’t considered her finest hour. Tonight, we’re expected to be even more patient: 80 minutes pass before the lights finally go down and the 2009 extension of the Sticky & Sweet tour begins. But the delay doesn’t matter one bit: Madge more than makes up for last year’s shortcomings and when she double-dutches her way through Into The Groove, the crowd’s response threatens to crumble the O2 to its foundations.
Essentially, the show remains the same. Racing against a constantly ticking clock, the music works its way from blinged-up glam, through hyper-coloured 80s retro, to darkly veiled Moorish territory, before deciding that – tempting and reassuring though they may be – forays into the past don’t provide ultimate answers. Hope lies in the future, which is where the show ends, as an M-shaped rocket blasts off into the cosmos, decimating all that stands in its way. The machine imagery is still in evidence, from Madonna herself being likened to a well-oiled, but visibly strained boxing automaton, to the robotic dancers, manipulating their bodies with scarily unreal precision. But two main differences lift the event light years above last year’s Wembley outing.
The first is the setting. Feel free to disagree, but might it be fair to suggest that if you want your gig to blow the roof off its venue, then the venue needs to have a roof in the first place? Sticky & Sweet‘s more striking elements somehow got diluted amidst the vastness of Wembley Stadium. But the O2 is a more defined space and the result is that the contrasts between the show’s many moments of light and darkness are much more tangible. Tonight, when the stirring La Isla Bonita twirls its coloured ribbons, you can almost hear the Romany blood pumping on the stage. When Ray Of Light thunders out its message of redemption, you believe, for a split second, that you might just get sucked into the shimmering galaxy spinning on the screens. And when Like A Prayer roars into anthemic, rave-inspired glory, you want to find the nearest atheist and sprinkle him with holy water. It was dangerously easy to remain unmoved by the show’s Wembley incarnation; tonight’s rendition could have generated enough power to light up every orphanage in Malawi.
The arena context also allows a closer focus on details. The tongue-in-cheek montage to accompany She’s Not Me and the finely tuned ‘march to the past’ of Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You (reminiscent of the ‘entry into the afterlife’ segment of 2001’s Drowned World tour) now seem more deliberately, more thoughtfully composed. And of course, there’s the evening’s main detail: Ms Ciccone herself. As she stomps through the percolator beats of Spanish Lesson or gets 20,000 people to clap along to Miles Away, it’s clear to see that she feels like… well, like a girl in a sweet shop, and her mood is infectious. Verbal interaction with the crowd is minimal, but somehow that doesn’t matter, because tonight Madonna is all smiles and sparkling eyes. Whilst harnessing the power of her dancers – who mock the laws of physics with every leap and somersault – she appears relaxed, confident and happy.
The second difference is the setlist. Again, the vast majority of the tracks is the same, but the changes are telling. Heartbeat is replaced by a synth-heavy Holiday (which, not incidentally, is interrupted for a well-judged Michael Jackson tribute). In a section dedicated to all that was tolerant and socially unifying about the 80s, the inclusion of one of Madonna’s most recognisable tracks makes irrefutable sense. The rock version of Borderline is now the rock version of Dress You Up, which, again, is a wise decision. The latter lends itself more easily to the sight of Madonna wielding a guitar; the former is perhaps too soulful a tune to stand up to the Suzi Quatro treatment.
But the most intriguing – and arguably, most memorable – alterations come in the show’s closing section. We’ve just had the fear of God put into us by the triple whammy of the Get Stupid interlude, 4 Minutes and Like A Prayer, and instead of Hung Up – which was rather incongruous at this point – along comes Frozen, but not in its familiar, romantic guise. This is an electro-gothic melodrama, in which sci-fi trooper Madge – dressed like a fearsome, cross-cultural, Boudica-samurai hybrid – fights one last battle with the darkness around her, aided by her armour-clad dancers. It’s a perfect choice, made all the more haunting by a brief sample from Open Your Heart. And only then do we get Ray Of Light, which is now the penultimate number, and is therefore granted the prominence it so obviously deserves. The climax is still the video-game themed Give It 2 Me, but in considerably more potent form, as it hasn’t been preceded by the tempo-halting request section from last year.
And then – in the afterglow of the maniacal laser beams – she’s back in the box, the ‘Game Over’ sign flashes up once more and it’s time to descend to reality. But unlike last year, you look around and realise the faces you see aren’t long and tired. Far from it: the energy of the crowd spills out through the doors and onto the streets of Greenwich. It may take an hour to wind your way out of the car park, but Madonna’s on Shuffle on the iPod, so as far as you’re concerned, this is one traffic jam that can take its sticky and sweet time.