First Night: Madonna, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

What was lacking in punctuality she made up for in pomp
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The Independent Culture

Well, she did arrive on stage an hour and a half late. And sure, ticket touts were rumoured to be flogging the £150 tickets at half price to fill the rows of empty seats.

But if those who took in this spectacular opening to Madonna's world tour on Saturday have seen anything as slick, innovative, and energetic in recent months then please point it out. For it is easy to feel spoiled when judging one of the most successful pop acts of all time. If the bar is high, it is her own fault, and you would be hard pressed to find any other 50-year-old pelting their way through two hours of back-breaking dance routines.

The tour, Sticky & Sweet, is named after Madonna's latest album, Hard Candy, which had a less-than-effervescent reception in April. Part of the problem seemed to be that pop's grande dame was just trying too hard; her collaborations with Pharrell, Kanye West, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake seemed to hanker after being "down with the kids". The artists in question appeared too scared to give her any criticism. In the end, the tracks on which they worked ("4 Minutes", "Beat Goes On") were less "collaborations" than Madonna shipping in the best talent money could buy to pay homage to her less-than-plugged-in greatness. Their talent was diluted accordingly.

But if such a display of raw power and influence could not impress the reviewers, in a live setting, there was no such problem. The choreography, the visuals, the other live talent, were world class, and mind-blowingly well executed, intelligent, and witty.

While the show's producers might have bastardised the best elements of vintage acid house, Geisha culture, gypsy folk and burlesque, it was almost certainly worth the compromise.

The concert was loosely based around four themes – "Pimp", "Old School", "Gypsy" and "Rave" – that tellingly looked like they had been named by your Mum. And so, Mother Pop was unveiled sitting in a throne for the opening number; with her legs akimbo, she launched into "Candy Shop" then "Beat Goes On".

"Vogue" was remixed with "4 Minutes", her recent single with Timberlake, then dancers sparred as in a boxing match for a reimagining of her theme tune to the Bond film Die Another Day. There was a bit of an awkward "granny moment" when for "Into The Groove" she pole-danced around a 1980s Deejay booth, before Britney Spears appeared on a video screen for "Human Nature", which showed her in CCTV-style footage being characteristically strange inside a lift.

Madonna strummed on her guitar (is she playing it? isn't she?) which made several appearances during the evening, before the night built to its climax: Timberlake, projected on to a collection of 15ft screens for "4 Minutes". By sliding her leg erotically up and down his image, Madonna still managed to flirt with him.

The only downside were the "serious" moments: images of the effects of global warming and starving children have become a devalued cliché at rock concerts.

But for all her excesses, and the fact that she is musically relevant only in fits and starts, Madonna is a necessary tonic for those who remember with fondness a more impressive and talented time in pop. It is a desert out there. Long may her hubris continue.

'Sticky & Sweet' – by numbers
*37 venues in four months
*45 concerts
*3,500 items of clothing
*250 staff
*36 designers
*30 wardrobe trunks
*16 dancers
*16 caterers
*12 musicians
*12 seamstresses
*9 wardrobe experts
*4 freezers continually stocked with ice to soothe aches and pains
*1 masseuse
*1 personal trainer
*1 chiropractor