By David Menconi
RALEIGH – Back in 1990, Madonna unleashed an extravagant roadshow she called “Blonde Ambition.” Twenty years later, Lady Gaga has taken that to the next level – burning ambition that’s literally on fire, down to the color of her bright orange hair.
Sunday night, Gaga rolled into the RBC Center on the final U.S. date of her “Fame Monster” tour, an over-the-top spectacle that rivals anything Madonna, David Bowie or, yes, even U2 has ever put on the road. The show drew a packed house of people dressed for the occasion in remarkably elaborate gender-bending costumes (plus the occasional Nirvana T-shirt; her audience is broad and deep).
Madonna is an obvious antecedent, of course. Like Lady M, Gaga espouses self-empowerment and sexuality as sacrament, in a cultural context of gay-friendly androgyny. There might have been just a little too much between-song banter, and she laid on the local references a little thick.
But that’s just quibbling. Imagine the most garish display you’ve ever witnessed – a Super Bowl halftime show, say. Now multiply that by about six, and you’re in the ballpark. Gaga exudes a sense of universe-ruling determination that is rare nowadays, and she commanded the room like a general.
“Scream, Raleigh!,” she hollered, and everybody did. “Now dance, [expletives]!,” and everybody did that, too.
The two-hour show had a rough storyline of Gaga and her retinue of backup dancers trying to get to the “Monster Ball.” You didn’t notice much beyond the star, however, clad as she was in everything from a see-through nun’s habit to a wedding dress made of crystalline feathers that sprouted into wings.
She didn’t just sing and prance, either. At various points, Gaga played a freaky-looking standup bass contraption while wearing what appeared to be a red tent, plus a keytar that looked like a triangular turtle shell.
Most impressive of all, she sat at a piano for a couple of songs and just played and sang. She was down to her leather underwear by then, of course. And yes, the piano was on fire. But she played and sang beautifully, showing that she’s a powerful belter. From a strictly musical point of view, it rivaled anything I’ve ever seen Tori Amos do.
Otherwise, most of the set was high-energy dance music loud enough to rattle ribcages at the back of the arena, with hits including “The Fame,” “Just Dance” and “Paparazzi.” During the latter song, flames began shooting from her naughty bits.
It was brilliant.