John McAlley reports from Barcelona, the Material Mom's first stop on a 48-show tour -- a heat-soaked extravaganza of punk rock, geishas, and sexy cowpokes

By John McAlley
Updated June 12, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Madonna: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect rates Madonna’s opening night in Barcelona

Madonna shows are all about getting the kinks out. So naturally, the opening date of her Drowned World Tour 2001 had its share of sex acts and (minor) slipups. And what better place for the High Priestess of Pop to stage her long-awaited concert comeback than the vital, colorful, pansexual hothouse that is Barcelona? If they didn’t know it beforehand, the 17,833 fans who piled into the sold-out Palau Sant Jordi found out it was, this night at least, the hottest place in town. Temperatures in the arena (the first stop on a 48-show, 17-city tour that hits the States July 21) rose so steadily that the crush of people on the venue’s floor coughed up casualties before the 20-song set even began.

As it turns out, the chaos was apt for a show that, judging by its title, is loosely inspired by British author J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic 1962 novel ”The Drowned World.” Yeah, looks like Madonna’s been cribbing again, but this time her source material is pretty highbrow. ”The Drowned World” is the second of four futuristic disaster novels by Ballard — each with its own theme of air, fire, water, and earth — in which the protagonist, at the end of a long journey through twisted, heat-engulfed, and fantastic worlds, discovers the Truth. ”Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” the opening track on Madonna’s cathartic ”Ray of Light” (1998), is where the material girl first drew the analogy between Ballard’s ravaged landscapes and her soul-killing obsession with success. As ”Ray of Light” and ”Music” (2000) made clear, mature Madonna’s ”truth” turned out to be not showbiz but love and motherhood and family.

Given the choice of sitting through a concert conceived by your mum or a crotch grabber like ”Virgin”-era Madonna, which would you choose? The crotch grabber, of course. Still, if Madonna’s Drowned World doesn’t reach the exhilarating heights of 1990’s Blonde Ambition tour (which, for all its randiness, made a powerfully moving statement about family), it offers plenty of artiness, attitude, eye candy, and its own brand of ambition.

Like Ballard’s series, the show is presented in four parts (though, in fairness, it would take a Booker Prize jurist to make the connection to the obscure novels), each with a distinct visual and lyric theme. In the opening segment, Madonna’s recent songs of spiritual and emotional awakening (”Ray of Light,” ”Impressive Instant”) are dresssed down in raucous punk. White lights pound the bare stage as Madonna, in tattered black garb and tartan kilt, emerges in a cloud of smoke and launches into ”Drowned World.” Her spasmodic dancers — 10 in all, in jackboots, Mohawks, and gas masks — hurtle across the stage when they’re not tormenting or humping the bitchy, strutting Madonna. ”F— you, motherf—ers!” she barks at the crowd between a hammering ”Candy Perfume Girl” and a hammy ”Beautiful Stranger.”