Madonna - M.E.N. Arena

So, after 17 years absent, Madonna has finally returned to perform in Manchester. Make no mistake about it, this is an event, something so earth shattering that the promoters feel confident enough to be charging a price five times higher than most arena concerts for it. So, with expectations thus raised, your now penniless CD Times roving reporter winces at the price of a programme and gives you the lowdown...

The first thing that should be said is that this isn't a gig any more than, say, Cirque Du Soleil is a gig. Sure, there's music, and there's a band, but they're not the focal point of the evening, in fact, for the most part, the musicians skulk at the back of the stage, and are never even introduced. It doesn't even have all the hallmarks of a gig - there's no support act, no encore, oh, and there's several million pounds worth of equipment on stage and very little chance that anyone's going to get pissed up on stage and break it at the end of the night.

This show is all about creating a spectacle.What a spectacle it is. Granted, it's full of mixed messages (Material Girl and then later on there's a crass cover of Imagine) but it's also full of some of the finest choreography that has ever graced an arena, an epic cast featuring a marching band, an electric chair, a skateboarder, gymnasts, televisions, giant moving video screens, platforms into the audience, a rotating stage and at one point even a bagpiper!

What of the songs, then? Firstly, they're performed live, as signalled by a faulty microphone during the set. Secondly, there's a whole bunch that an arena was made for. Crazy For You, Into The Groove, the opening Vogue, Holiday, Material Girl, Papa Don't Preach, Express Yourself and a spectacular Like A Prayer. Then there's the newer tracks like Die Another Day, Music, Frozen and Don't Tell Me, which work better live than they did on record.

Other pleasant surprised came during the circus-themed set, where Hanky Panky got the crowd going, and Deeper and Deeper became a suprisingly touching ballad before becoming a show-tune.

A couple of songs in the programme's listed running order were a little disingenous, with both Beast Inside and Bedtime Story being played back while a video player in the case of the former, or while there was a performance by members of the cast other than Madonna herself in the case of the latter.

The one sour note is Imagine. Images of war and destruction behind her, Madonna murders arguable John Lennon's finest hour, delivering a horrible reading that is simultaneously patronisng and overwrought.

Overall, though, Madonna's re-invention brought a night to remember, a party atmosphere and the miracle of near perfect sound in an arena environment. Sure, in the end, it was just a show, a shiny trinket with little substance bar a loose "re-invention" theme, the closest to which it got was a pseudo-metal version of Material Girl with Madonna on guitar, but I challenge you to find a shinier bauble in all of popland.

Set list:
The Beast Within
Nobody Knows Me
American Life
Express Yourself
Burning Up
Material Girl
Hanky Pankey
Deeper And Deeper
Die Another Day
The Lament
Bedtime Stories
Nothing Fails
Don't Tell Me
Like A Prayer
Mother & Father
Into The Groove
Papa Don't Preach
Crazy For You

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