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Madonna: Confessions Tour

At the Bell Centre

In Montreal on Wednesday

When Madonna arrived on stage at Montreal's Bell Centre on Wednesday night, it was clear that this tour marked one of those key moments in her career arc. Her arrival on the charts in the early eighties was often marked by critical derision (including a famous comment by a Time magazine critic who declared that Madonna was a fad that no one would remember in a decade). Since then, there have been celebrity relationships (among them with Sean Penn and Warren Beatty), brazen proclamations of libidinous bravado and religious transformation.

Sure, there have been mishaps -- that famously tortured acting career, for example. But for the most part, Madonna's music has delivered. A few years ago, she faced some particularly nasty reviews that suggested the Material Girl had run out of material; according to a few critics, the pop goddess was redundant.

But really, should anyone ever count this woman out? Not every track on every album is spun from gold, but she is an extremely savvy and clever performance artist, pop star and singer. Her latest album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, is a brilliant bit of career revival, full of spunky glam, ghetto chic and stimulating videos that have been among Madonna's hallmarks.

The first night of the only two Canadian performances of her Confessions tour was an example of the artist at her best: energetic, naughty, brazenly kitschy and wildly entertaining. She arrived, ingeniously, in a massive disco ball that descended from the heavens and opened like a blooming flower. Call it the damn-the-critics tour: Madonna seemed hell bent on engaging in some age-defying calisthenics, and, oddly enough, began the evening with a lengthy reference to her horse-riding accident of last year. This, she made entirely clear, was going to hold her back about as much as those occasionally bitchy reviews.

Draped in a series of skin-tight outfits by Jean Paul Gaultier (a couple of them appeared to have been sprayed on), Madonna's body provides a point of fascination. While defying her critics, she also defies age: Why bother with a midlife crisis when there are no signs of crisis? (The list of factoids given to the press about the Confessions tour includes: "Foundation used on Madonna's skin: 0.") There were the expected and much-talked-about political statements: the depiction of a tragic gangland shooting; a reminder that one million children have been orphaned by AIDS in Africa; nods to her massive gay following (two male dancers embrace during one number, to Madonna's approval); and the obligatory trashing of Bush and Blair.

But Madonna is at her best when she moves beyond literal-minded political statements and plays with cultural iconography. She performed a rendition of Live to Tell while strapped to a massive mirror-tiled cross, adorned with a crown of thorns. (Fitting in Montreal, a city that has its own lit-up cross.) Madonna seemed less intent on reminding us about her own suffering than about pointing to the religious overtones of contemporary celebrity culture (a point made equally well by David Bowie during his 1987 Glass Spider tour). Another sublime moment arrived when she sang her signature song, Like a Virgin. For this, a metal rod conveniently popped out of one section of the stage, allowing Madonna to pole dance, showgirl style.

But the play list was telling: This is not an artist who is settling for a greatest-hits retrospective. Madonna is confident that her best work is current, not past More than half of the songs performed were from her new album, culminating in a marvellously tacky disco medley, punctuated by Hung Up, the ludicrously catchy ABBA-sampled hit. By contrast, on some of her older hits -- notably Lucky Star -- she sang with far less enthusiasm.

Madonna seemed intent on proving something with her Confessions tour: that she's still beholden to her worshipping fans (Montreal's two nights sold out in under two hours -- a record), that she still knows how to have fun (despite parenthood and the religious conversion) and that she remains culturally germane. To accomplish that, she needed to captivate, to provide exhilaration, to nod to her past while maintaining the aura of an artist whose best is before her.

She delivered.