Monday, June 14, 2004

The mother of reinvention seems more like a master of recycling these days. Madonna, the erstwhile Material Girl-turned-Britney-Spears-mentor, dropped by the MCI Center Sunday night for the first of two District stops on her Re-Invention Tour ‘04.

Unlike her last tour, Madonna obliged with a healthy dose of fan favorites, from “Like a Prayer” to “Into the Groove.”

What stood out for those who have tracked her career through its many phases — virgin, less than virgin, bad actress and children’s book author — is that today’s Madonna isn’t exactly sure who she is.

The show trots out the singer’s hit parade of shocks, from political swipes to erotica unhinged, but each came out as if sanitized by time or (gasp) good taste.

She no longer wants to titillate us, and her polemics always fall short of genuine insight.

Madonna, now 45, is one of several ‘80s icons, including The Cure and Prince, hitting the road again this summer. But while Prince’s tour finds the multi-talented musician winning fans anew with his craft, Madonna dazzles with pyrotechnics. The best she can muster musically is to strum an acoustic guitar while a crush of musicians perform behind her, mostly on the periphery of the stage, without a ray of light to illuminate them.

Flanked by massive video screens for much of the affair, Madonna entered from a rising platform to “vogue.”

Never mind her occasional British accent, which she should have left behind in her hotel suite.

The singer’s voice, an able instrument but hardly her calling card, remained hale throughout the night.

“Burning Up,” a nugget better left buried, somehow made the oldies cut, while “Material Girl” got an irony-free treatment. She brought a jazzy touch to “Deeper and Deeper,” which showed vocal nuances we didn’t know she had.

The best blend of music and the concert’s visuals came with “Like a Prayer,” which she sang before a backdrop of black churchgoers streaming on the video screens.

The protest singer in her blanketed the night with morose good intentions.

Helicopter sounds and footage of wounded children made it abundantly clear Madonna is against war, but it’s equally obvious she isn’t interested in mocking our troops. She probably realized she looked smashing in a military beret and olive green shades and took it from there.

Later, she sang an uninspiring version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that was saved only by reverberating guitar chords. She then segued to Scottish bagpipes and drums, which begat “Into the Groove.”

One could think for days and not come up with a more incongruous match between music and theme.

The night concluded with a big sign that read “Reinvent Yourself.”

One day it might occur to her to actually be herself, and see what happens. It could be the only reinvention she hasn’t tried yet.

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