Madonna's Celebration Tour Took Toronto Through the Decades and Beyond

Scotiabank Arena, January 11

Photo: Ricardo Gomes

BY Tom BeedhamPublished Jan 12, 2024

Holding out an open palm bearing a tattooed Om symbol, Madonna emerged onstage for the first of two nights in Toronto with an invitation.

Promising listeners a journey through four decades of hits and spectacle, Madonna's Celebration tour offered a rare moment of reflection and introspection from an artist and figure who inarguably fashioned a reputation as one of pop culture's most defiantly ambitious modernizers. 

Drag Race winner and master of ceremonies for the night Bob the Drag Queen set the stage from the pit, inquiring with audience members about where she was going to get her "Canadian bacon" from before offering an origin story, reminding the crowd a teenage Madonna journeyed to New York City from Detroit with just $35 in her pocket before gracing the stage on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Full of skits, video clips and storytelling asides alluding to formative experiences at New York institutions like the Danceteria, Paradise Garage and CBGB, the variably giddy, campy and joyous first act packed a series of early hits ("Everybody," "Into the Groove," "Holiday"), including an early bit where Madonna swigged from a beer bottle and strapped on a guitar for "Burning Up" wherein we were also introduced to a drag performer we were told represents Madonna's younger self, and to keep this in mind as they reappeared throughout the night.

After a brief interlude, the set that followed was more sombre, Madonna stepping into a glass box and floating alone through the arena singing "Live to Tell" while tributes to friends and figures lost to the AIDS crisis displayed on arena height projection screens: Eazy-E, Keith Haring, Freddie Mercury, Cookie Mueller… far, far too many to name in the space of one concert review.

When she returned to stage ground, two cloaked figures bearing incense thuribles draped Madonna in a veil and accompanied her in a slow procession toward the stage, where a giant carousel displaying a number of dancers like crucified martyrs wheeled like a cruel clock. The structure eventually set the stage for a dark and dramatic rendition of "Like a Prayer" interspersed with smash cuts to Sam Smith and Kim Petras's "Unholy."

There was a lot going on, and while the various elements helped the pacing of the show, for some time, it was unclear how these disparate elements would come together. But in the back half of the set, things became clarified when a quote attributed to philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff was prominently displayed on a screen before a western themed act featuring tributes to Madonna's mother and the birth mother of her son David Banda (performing guitar throughout the night) as well as on-screen references to David Bowie, Angela Davis, Frida Kahlo, Malcolm X, Sinead O'Connor and more: "To be born, we must first die, and to die, we must first awake." 

Madonna has no doubt endured her share of awakenings of late, some ruder than others. Sporting a knee brace for the night — with dancers handling the most impressive choreography — Madonna opted (no doubt strategically) to sit down and mime as a judge in a ballroom runway sequence during "Vogue," while the tour itself was postponed in late June after a "serious bacterial infection" that resulted in a multiple-day stay in ICU.

This is all perfectly reasonable and truthfully doesn't require critical assessment, but how Madonna approached these conditions was perhaps most impressive: as much as they imposed limitations, to Madonna, they became lenses through which to highlight the generative potential of art and legacy. 

That compulsion was also exhibited in the track mixes Madonna opted to perform to, frequently preferring remixes over the original studio recordings or live instrumentations. So Sasha Ultra Violet's remix of "Ray of Light" gave the dated turn-of-the-century neo-psychedelia club of the original new verve, while Sickick's tooled up trap remix of "Frozen" gave Madonna's track more gravitational pull as she sang under the spotlight from the centre of the arena. And it was fitting when Madonna capped the night off with "Bitch I'm Madonna" and its Diplo- and SOPHIE-co-produced metacommentary, Nicki Minaj's verse intact in the mix while Bob paraded dancers costumed as Madonnas of eras past down the stage's runways before a literal victory lap to the Benny Benassi remix of the tour's namesake track.

Without being overly self-serious, this imaginative and frequently immaculate production cast its own retrospective framing in challenging terms and invited audiences to reevaluate their own relationships to the worlds they inhabit, the people they love, and energy itself — more of a promise that all will continue to grow than a commentary on what's lost with time. 

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