U2

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My photos and videos from last night’s U2 gig at the O2 are here.

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The Rebel Heart Tour

Like A Prayer

(click on image for video)

When Rebel Heart was released I wrote that “‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album”. This is, it’s safe to say, underlined by the Rebel Heart tour. I had read reviews describing it as a joyful experience but I couldn’t quite fathom how the setlist, which looked somewhat schizophrenic and jarring on paper, could lend itself to that.

Well, it does. It really, really does.

This was a Madonna at ease with herself: with her massive legacy, which she has sometimes shied away from, and with her current status as the grande dame of popular music. It’s no accident that the tour opens with Iconic and Bitch I’m Madonna before roaring back to 1983 with Burning Up, where “I’m not the same, I have no shame, I’m on fire!” was a prescient mission statement. The Rebel Heart songs, packed with allusions to Madonna’s position as an ageing pop star, sit surprisingly comfortably alongside old classics overwhelmingly taken from the first decade of her career. Perhaps most shockingly of all, these older songs are largely performed straight, rather than transformed in one of her trademark reinventions. There was a palpable sense of love pouring towards the stage when she performed True Blue, Like A Virgin, Like A Prayer, La Isla Bonita, Deeper and Deeper, Material Girl, Holiday in versions everyone could dance and sing-a-long to. Even a jazz version of Music quickly reverts to the squelching electro everybody knows. For once she was giving people the nostalgia they crave in their iconic pop stars – and she seemed to enjoy doing it.

As opposed to the brilliantly oppressive darkness of the MDNA tour, there was little here to disrupt audience expectations of ‘Madonna’: religion, sex, love, politics, defiance and feminism all dutifully appeared (sometimes all at once, as when Madonna surfed atop a dancer dressed as a nun on a rotating crucifix(!)) but always with a knowing, humourous wink. The flashes of steel were a lot more subtle this time round: the inclusion of many Rebel Heart songs was sweetened with the sugar of classics for casual fans, flashes of Give It 2 Me’s ‘Nothing’s gonna stop me now’ interspersed Music while the pre-encore show ended with new album track Unapologetic Bitch. Even the latter, however, was made more palatable for casual listeners by being delivered with light-touch humour and by dragging Graham Norton up on stage.

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Given the title of the album, tour and the heart-shaped stage, it was only fitting that the song Rebel Heart felt like the throbbing centrepiece of the show. It was delivered alone by Madonna, standing in front of a screen depicting fan art of her throughout her past three decades:

Rebel Heart

(click on image for video)

It was both moving and celebratory, a testament to one of the most spectacular careers in popular music. That’s what this show is. Madonna might be one of the hardest working people in pop but she seems to finally feel that she has little left to prove. All she has to do is remind us of who she is, what she’s done and let us love her because, by and large, her fans have been on much of the journey with her. “We’re alive. We survived. And amen to fucking that!” she exclaimed at one point. Amen, indeed.

And she performed Candy Shop, of course. Bitch, she’s Madonna.

Photos and videos are here.

Kylie

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My photos and videos of Kylie at the O2 last night are here.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Q Magazine’s review of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories in 1994 has always stuck in my memory. Its final line was “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?”

It’s no secret (hey!) that I’ve been immensely frustrated by Kylie for a while now. If I can be awful enough to quote myself (I can be):

Kylie has willingly placed herself into the nostalgia circuit. With her previous few albums clearly struggling to sell outside of her fan-base, it’s difficult to see this changing…if we approach pop as merely fronting persuasive hits, Kylie’s age is clearly against her and she begins to seem increasingly irrelevant.  What’s the point of a blank slate for Calvin Harris when you have Rihanna, for example? I don’t think you have to be too concerned with ‘rockist’ notions to believe that delivering further albums of off-the-shelf electro-pop can only offer diminishing returns, both commercially and critically.

Despite some glimmers of hope that something interesting was stirring (the Anti-Tour, the Abbey Road album which had an air of putting the past to bed, the jump to Roc Nation) the resulting relaunch, Kiss Me Once, was an immense disappointment. It also bombed – the last time I checked, long after its speedy exit from most of the world’s charts, it had sold around 200,000 copies worldwide (2010’s Aphrodite was certified Platinum for shipping 300,000 copies in the UK alone). An artistic risk which doesn’t sell can be a noble failure; a commercial smash which treads water could be said to be giving the fans what they want. The stars don’t always align. With Kiss Me Once, however, the stars weren’t even visible.

Still, live is where Kylie has always truly excelled, right? There’s no doubt that she remains a hugely charismatic performer – and she deserves eternal credit for her live vocals which invariably knock it out of the park. Yet the infuriating, aimless, conservatism which marked Kiss Me Once (and has arguably characterised much of her career in the past decade) carries over into this tour. The show is overwhelmingly familiar – with over 40 top twenty hits in the UK and 12 albums to her name, do we really need all of the big Parlophone singles wheeled out yet again? Do we need performances of Sexy Love/Wow/Love At First Sight, three diminishing return rewrites of the same song? Do we need yet another PWL medley (as fun as it was)? There were the usual semi-naked male dancers, the same old ‘ad-libs’, the standard ‘impromptu’ rendition of an old hit. It was Kylie-by-numbers. There were nods to progression with interludes featuring the Garibay songs she surprise-released the other week but what would Kylie have to lose in performing some of these live? They are the most interesting, if half-sketched, songs she’s released in ages. Lest we forget, she debuted Can’t Get You Out Of My Head on tour back in 2001 while KylieX2008 featured two completely new songs.

In the Kiss Me Once show, however, we find a Kylie who seems hesitant and cowed. Perhaps the underperformance of the album meant she felt the need to ‘deliver the hits’ – but anyone around her with the slightest insight would understand that the vast majority of people (hello, gay men over the age of 30) attending a Kylie show in 2014 would go along for the ride, wherever it took them. The ‘casual’ fans have been drifting away for a while now, underlined by the fact that last night’s third evening at the O2 featured a curtained-off top section:

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Les Folies tour had 5 dates at the O2. KylieX2008 had 7. Are we seeing a trend here?

To go back to the quote at the beginning, I of course don’t think that Kylie’s career is over. Yet it’s conceivable that her time as a relevant concern is at an end and, on the basis of both KMO album and tour, she could be in Cher territory: release a ‘will this do?’ album for the faithful then go out on tour with essentially the same show as you always do. And we shouldn’t be in any doubt that a significant number of her fans would be absolutely fine with this – it’s all they want from her. My frustration, as always, stems from the fact that I know she is capable of so much more than that. I’ve been saying that she has nothing to lose for years – now we’re at the stage where surely even she must be aware of her decline. I think this could be her last chance to do something daring, as she has done before, to win over new hearts and minds. Alternatively, we’ll rendezvous in a few years for her three dates at Brixton Academy, marketed as an ‘intimate’ show but with a telling smattering of empty seats.

Leonard Cohen

The absolutely sublime Recitation performed by Leonard Cohen at the O2 last night. I wrote a post last year about my experience of seeing him for the first time and there’s little to add to that now. Suffice to say that he didn’t disappoint the second time. As my friend (who was having his own first experience of Leonard live) said, “he takes you on a journey” and you feel that you’re witness to the mysteries and majesty of music. It was a fitting and satisfying end to a Sunday which started with the new Britney dreck

You can see the full set of photos and videos here.