Madonna looks back, but on her own terms. And she also leans heavily, rightfully so, on her latest album, “Rebel Heart.”

“Are you here to take risks?” Madonna posed this question to a packed crowd at her concert Saturday Night (October 3), noting that they were, after all, in Atlantic City (the show took place at Boardwalk Hall). Whether or not the audience were feeling risky — and many of them surely were not — Madonna certainly was.

At this point in her career, she could play to that crowd, and do it in her sleep: it would be the easiest thing in the world for her to do a greatest hits show, and add a perfunctory song or four from her latest album, throw in a few dance routines, and let the money roll in.

But bitch, she’s Madonna.

Her new album Rebel Heart is more than just a centerpiece around which she builds a tour and marketing campaign. Her new album is her artistic statement of the moment. Any older songs that happen to make the setlist, make it because they fit in to the narrative she’s building around her album. It almost feels like her classics have to audition for the show, along with her dancers and backing band. Nothing’s there unless it fits.

She’s been categorized, of course, as a pop artist, which is understandable because she’s logged an insane amount of top 40 hits over her career. But when it comes to the way she structures her show, she’s more like Bruce Springsteen or U2. It’s about the message of the moment, not about fulfilling the fans wishes. There’s no song she “has to” play.

And, in fact, you could argue that she’s a bit more daring than her rock peers: when she plays a classic, it’s generally in a totally different arrangement from the original. So, “Burnin’ Up” becomes a hard rock jam featuring a face melting guitar solo by Madonna herself. “True Blue” is almost doo-wop, driven by Madonna’s ukelele playing. Then there’s a Latin take on “Dress You Up” (which dove into “Into the Groove” and “Lucky Star”). “Who’s That Girl” on the other hand, was done acoustic duo-style. Some of these performances serve as reminders that Madonna could have taken any number of artistic paths and crushed it. If, say, she had wanted to front a rock band, she would have been classic rock radio fixture by now. Had she gone the acoustic route, she’d be an NPR perennial.

This was, as it happens, my first Madonna concert. Madonna’s always struck me as someone who is notoriously not nostalgic, which makes sense: she always seems ready to conquer the world, and the pop charts, every time she unleashes a new record. And the pop charts are about singles, not box sets. But last night, she seemed to enjoy playing her hits, probably because it was strictly on her own terms. No matter the song, you never felt like she was playing anything in a perfunctory way.

And as seamlessly as she slips in and out of eras and genres, she does the same with visual themes that ranged from Asian to Latin to very American: a car repair shop circa Grease and a Cotton Club era nightspot. It was an amazing spectacle to experience. The dancers also killed it in different styles, occasionally veering into Cirque du Soleil turf. The show was visually stunning; like U2, each song had it’s own visual design and concept. (When U2’s longtime manager retired, they signed with Madonna’s manager Oseary, which makes total sense; clearly he’s a guy who can handle insanely ambitious clients; those two tours have raised the bar for production spectacles that feel intimate and have heart.)

I’ve seen, and reviewed, a number of concerts by legends with decade-spanning careers. And so it’s worth mentioning that very few of them are able to lean on a new album in concert as heavily as Madonna did last night; in fact, five of the six first songs are from Rebel Heart. And while some of her fans from her early ’80s era may have felt alienated during some of those songs with their EDM-centric production by the likes of Diplo and Avicii, much of the audience knew every word to every song, regardless of era. Anthems like “Bitch I’m Madonna” and “Unapologetic Bitch” felt like new rallying cries for much of the crowd (and that’s regardless of gender, by the way: lots of men were wearing their new “Bitch I’m Madonna” t-shirts, including a fan that was invited onstage during “Unapologetic Bitch”).

Other songs from the album that provided highlights included the power ballad “Ghosttown,” “Heartbreak City” (which saw Madonna and one of her dancers on a spiral staircase, almost connecting but just missing, mirroring the lyrics) and the album’s acoustic guitar-propelled title track. On the later, when she sang “Never look back, it’s a waste of time/I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is me/And I’m right here where I wanna be,’” it felt like a bit of a mantra for herself and her show. Although maybe those lyrics aren’t completely accurate: last night, it felt like she actually did enjoy looking back, since it was on her own terms.

But the crowd ate up every lyric she sang, roared for every word she said to them, and cheered for every last dance move and every last gesture, So the second part of that lyric rang especially true: there’s no doubt that playing to huge crowds is surely right where she wants to be. Hopefully she wants to do it for a long time to come: I’m already looking forward to seeing what she does on her next tour.

Brian Ives

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