At 15, I was the prince of infatuation and unrequited crushes. The number one infatuation was a crush on a girl named Jennifer in my 10th grade English class. She looked like a young Madonna, and I never even got the courage up to talk to her. The closest I got to talking to her was doing a reading of a chapter of Cyrano de Bergerac (with me as Cyrano and she as Roxanne). And in my tiny upstairs converted attic bedroom at home that year, I was wearing out a cassette of Madonna’s first album.
But I never got to see Madonna perform live until last Wednesday night at Toyota Center. The connections I’ve made at Live Nation and Space City Rock have never served me better (save the chance to see Radiohead earlier this year). But usually I’m not rewarded for my time and effort with two floor seats.
I have to profusely thank the people who’ve helped me along this musical adventure (Levi and Jeremy) [Ed. Note: This one’s all Levi’s doing, not mine! Kudos to him for the hook-up…]; I never dreamed when I bought my used D80 two years ago that I would someday be shooting Madonna at Toyota Center.
Alright, so on to the show. It’s hard to remember everything, even with the photos. It was one beautiful vignette after another. Note that this is not the type of show I usually attend — I’m used to seeing bands rock out, whereas this came off more like a Broadway or Vegas event.
As you may have heard, the show started late; “late” for a Toyota Center headliner, apparently, is 9:00PM. I had already been told Madonna would start at 10:00, but it was nearly 11:00 before she actually got started. The crowd, mostly middle-aged nostalgics like me (though, granted, with more disposable income, because they had paid for their seats!), as well as what seemed like the entire Houston GLBT community (Madonna’s respect for the GLBT community is legendary, and they love her), was actually pretty patient, from what I could tell. Maybe everyone had read the reviews about how late she likes to start.
I shifted my attention between the floor seats where my wife was sitting and the photographer room where my equipment was sitting. So up and down the stairs I traveled, at least twice before the show finally started. Usually photographers are allowed to photograph the first two or three songs, but Madonna wanted the press to focus on songs later in the set, so I was able to catch the first few songs from my seats before heading up to join the photographers for those exciting duties.
The show started with a church scene. The way the screens were set up to catch the computerized projections, they were angled brilliantly to trick the audience’s eyes into thinking we were seeing a three-dimensional Middle Ages European church scene. Dancers in monk costumes swung a giant smoke/incense container and chanted. I wish I were more fluent in the Catholic church traditions so I could’ve known what they were doing.
Soon, the middle projection screen opened up at the center and a woman’s silhouette was seen praying inside a floating confessional room. You could hear her voice praying to God for forgiveness. It’s the opening of Madonna’s latest album, MDNA, and it makes for a striking show starter, leading into the song “Girl Gone Wild.”
Soon after the verse and chorus of the song, the dancers monk robes are gone, and we are watching a Chippendale’s-type dance routine, with Madonna in charge. She looked amazing. Every review I’d read of the tour reminds me that she’s 54, but to me, she’s timeless. This concert proved that.
Around this time, I needed to make my leave to get ready to take photographs. Only one or two other photographers had a ticket to the show, as far as I could tell, so all the photographers were huddled in a small room watching Game One of the World Series and waiting (some for several hours, since the show was so late). The songs we were to shoot included “Express Yourself” and “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” though we were allowed to shoot a little bit of the strange interlude before these songs — at least, it seemed strange, entering into the middle of it.
For the songs we shot, Madonna wore a cheerleader/majorette outfit, and the backdrops for these two songs were very fun, Pop Art-type screens. They made for interesting backdrops for photos, because we were taking photos from the soundboard. I never like shooting from that far away, but I just bought a new 300mm zoom lens, so at least I’m able to get a little closer to the action now.
“Express Yourself” was a thrill to hear after all these years, highlighted by the sarcastic nod to Lady Gaga with a seamless chorus of Gaga’s “Born this Way” to show how similar the songs are and the repeated tag line “She’s Not Me” to punctuate Madonna’s obvious superiority. “Luvin'” is a fun new addition to the catalog, and the addition of cheerleader uniforms naturally reminded me of “Mickey” by Toni Basil. I also remember it from the Super Bowl performance.
After that, it was back up to the photo room to drop off the equipment and then back down to join my wife for the rest of the show. By this time, it was 11:30PM, and I would have a performance of my own the next morning with my third and fourth graders! I was able to keep my mind on the show enough to enjoy it, but I was also distracted by the time and also by all the people flooding the aisles and taking photos with their phones.
Highlights of the show included “Vogue,” with its nod to Art Deco designs and high fashion cross-dressers, “Erotica,” with its moving mirrors (I took it as a tribute to surrealist artists, but maybe I was reading too much into it), and the vignette of “Like a Virgin” and “Nobody Knows Me,” which took place with a solo piano and Madonna singing on the “catwalk” of the stage.
This part of the show took place about 15 feet away from our seats and gave us the best view of Madonna that we could ever hope to get, temporary Obama tattoo aside. I should add that the photos I got during this part of the show were from my small Nikon P300 point-and-shoot camera, not a professional camera, but one that serves me very well when I am not able to use a DSLR. If you are the type to take photos at shows, you really need to get a camera with a F/1.8 lens like the P300. Regular point-and-shoot cameras are not going to do anyone justice.
iPhones aren’t, either, yet everyone was watching the show through their phones. Well, not everyone — my wife still has a flip phone that she didn’t bring to the concert. Imagine that! She was able to drink the show in without worrying about getting a photo of herself with Madonna singing in the background (do you understand how pathetic I think these people are yet?).
“I’m Addicted” is one of the highlights of the new album and was enjoyable live. “I’m a Sinner” came across as psych-Britpop in the vein of Kula Shaker without as much talent. And “Like a Prayer” was an excellent way for us to end the evening and beat the crowd (I understand “Celebration” was the real last song). Enjoy the photos! END
(All photos by Jason Smith.)