Live review: Madonna feels it in her heartbeat

Madonna performs in Athens, Greece on Sept. 27, 2008. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

Until Saturday, the closest I'd ever gotten to Madonna was watching Truth or Dare on DVD. Actually, considering the scope of her LCD-enhanced stage show set-up and my placement in the 17, 000-strong crowd at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, screening Truth or Dare was likely a more intimate Material Girl experience than seeing her live. Perhaps if I'd been fortunate enough to take in any of the pop icon's previous concert tours -- particularly one from her controversy-courting prime -- I wouldn't've been quite as swept away (no, not in the cinematic sense) by her first Canadian stop on the Sticky and Sweet tour.

But from where I was sitting, the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Ritchie's first T.O. appearance since 2004 was pretty spectacular. While the audience was still reeling from the seizure-inducing lightscreen intro -- giant M's that looked like they were made of sequins made way for a cheesy computer-animated video that was equal parts Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and Mousetrap -- the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Ritchie appeared onstage, holding court from a giant throne while wielding a cane like a pro domme. She sailed through the oily R&B of new track Candy Shop (a poor opening choice) straight into the pulsating Beat Goes On, her studio collaborators -- Pharrell Williams and Kanye West -- present in spirit and countenance (their virtual likenesses grimaced from those massive screens) if not in body.

By the time Madonna sated the salivating crowd with some old favourites -- a toughened up Human Nature, which found the pop star busting out ragged power chords on a Gibson guitar, and the sashaying Vogue -- you almost didn't notice how weak her new material seems in comparison to the classics. Bombarded by so much stimulation -- girls posing looked like glorified human props, in bondage lingerie over nudie bodysuits, like human Barbies! A gleaming ivory Rolls-Royce, which rolled onstage and was worked into the choreography! A pleasingly diverse array of adorable backup dancers, clad in crayon-coloured American Apparel short-shorts! Madonna's superhuman biceps! A staged boxing pas-de-deux during Die Another Day -- it became increasingly difficult to filter the myriad sensory perceptions, let alone make qualitative assessments.

And so I willingly accepted the frequent sour notes in Madonna's vocals. Scratch that -- I even embraced them, floored by the fact that, at 50, the consummate entertainer is able to quick-step through blinding choreography without resorting to the full-on lip-synching that seems standard for too many contemporary pop performers. To be sure, the oldies but goodies thrilled me the most -- the crunchy, power-chorded run through Borderline prickled the hairs on the back of my neck; Into The Groove (which showcased Madge's weird pole-dancing-on-the-DJ-console routine) was wobbly, but divine; even Like A Prayer, during which we were treated to a saccharine (sticky and sweet?) video meant to educate about the universal peace and love shared by all world religions, was... dare I say moving?

But certain Hard Candy tracks stood out. For her gloriously playful take on She's Not Me, Madonna pranced through a quartet of her previous incarnations -- the Material Girl in a silk dress, the Girlie Show gamine, the Like A Virgin bride and a Blonde Ambition bombshell sporting an exaggerated pseudo-Gaultier cone-bra -- and literally tore them (or at least their outfits) to shreds. Creator turned destroyer, I guess. During Devil Wouldn't Recognize You, the tumultuous ballad that closes Hard Candy, a piano rose in an LED cylinder, digitized rain pouring down the sides of the column. While Montreal-born pianist Ric'key Pageot pounded out weepy chords, Madonna slowly emerged from a flowing black shroud on top of the baby grand. It was a rare moment of introspective, quiet emotion -- one she repeated with tremendous success during a pared-down version of the Evita ballad You Must Love Me, several songs later.

A couple more, er, ambitious moments didn't translate. As much as I enjoy the singer's willingness to reconfigure her older material, grafting gypsy guitars and Cossack dancers on to the "Spanish lullaby" La Isla Bonita -- framed by a Hee-Haw-worthy barnyard set -- was just plain wrong. And the raucous attempts at feedback and metal riffs during both Ray Of Light and Hung Up proved that, though she'd love you to think otherwise, rock 'n' roll isn't exactly our girl's strong suit.

As the throngs poured out of the ACC after Madonna's two-hour set, I caught more than a few grumbles from some glitter-faced diehards, many of whom seemed underwhelmed by what they perceived as weak choreography and a set that leaned too heavily on material from Hard Candy, Madge's most recent (and somewhat lacklustre) album. These devout Madonnaphiles, it seemed, longed for the days of cone-shaped bras and writhing in front of crosses -- or possibly even a coy nod to the squelchy beats and cowboy kitsch of Madonna's Music period.

I kinda get where they're coming from. Throughout her career, the chameleon queen of dance-floor pop has made a point of challenging social mores through confrontational, envelope-pushing performances and personae, using her stage shows as a platform to make bold statements, whether they be about kissing girls or the power of yoga to bring about spiritual transformation. But three decades on, Madonna's momentum has slowed. She's proved herself both a master of sensationalism and staying power. In place of that manic compulsion to reinvent herself, to pillage iconography both popular and mystical, she seems to have cast her gaze inward, sifting through her own aesthetic and personal history and recycling the elements that suit her whims.

Where the savvy pop diva once scandalized the public by pushing the boundaries of (good) taste, the most shocking thing about the 2008 version of Madonna is how typical her current problems seem -- she's going through a nasty divorce, she's searching for spiritual guidance, she's trying to parent her kids and (most strikingly) she's fighting tooth and nail against getting old. Strangely, something about witnessing the 50-year-old crow's feet and wrinkles on Madonna's face, projected a hundred times larger than life, as she works her ass off (to paraphrase part of her stage banter) for a crowd of almost 20, 000 feels more awe-inspiring than any of her old-school shock tactics.

--Sarah Liss