Madonna, Earl's Court, London<br/>The 5.6.7.8's, 100 Club, London

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The Independent Culture

She's as subtle as a half-brick to the head, of course. Madonna, wearing military fatigues and a black beret, surveys her troops. Stomping along a suspended walkway over the heads of the audience while their leader sings "American Life", they include a man in stereotypical "Muslim" attire, and a "Catholic" stripper nun. Behind her, projected silhouettes of grenades, tanks and helicopters move across a backwash of blood, occasionally melting into pictures of children crying in the rubble of a bombsite. Meanwhile, in two cages at each side of the stage, Abu Ghraib-style torture scenes are re-enacted by dancers. At the end, a Bush-alike and Saddam-alike share a cigar and a cuddle.

She's as subtle as a half-brick to the head, of course. Madonna, wearing military fatigues and a black beret, surveys her troops. Stomping along a suspended walkway over the heads of the audience while their leader sings "American Life", they include a man in stereotypical "Muslim" attire, and a "Catholic" stripper nun. Behind her, projected silhouettes of grenades, tanks and helicopters move across a backwash of blood, occasionally melting into pictures of children crying in the rubble of a bombsite. Meanwhile, in two cages at each side of the stage, Abu Ghraib-style torture scenes are re-enacted by dancers. At the end, a Bush-alike and Saddam-alike share a cigar and a cuddle.

Madonna's bull-in-a-china-shop bluntness, nay clumsiness, when it comes to serious issues is nothing new, and the aesthete in you wants to curl up and die at the naffness of it all but, as with Michael Moore, you overlook the Irritant Factor and decide that on balance, in an election year, anything which reminds significant numbers of people about the true horror of President Bush's own World Tour is to be applauded.

So far, so good. A simple statement, and a straightforward one. Almost immediately, though, the messages become mixed. Despite numerous disclaimers on her latest album (and indeed in tonight's show) - "I'm not a Christian and I'm not a Jew", "I'm not religious" - Madonna, in case you haven't been keeping up, has Got Religion. Again. Not Catholicism this time, but Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism. Her new-found spirituality (there are Hebrew symbols on the screen at one point, although they might conceivably read "Hello Guy! Love you, sweetie!") jars uncomfortably with the songs she chooses to sing. After criticism that her 2001 shows were too light on the classics, the Re-Invention Tour resurrects songs like "Express Yourself" - a vacuous assertion of Eighties positive thinking - and the vile "Material Girl". One imagines that she would now plead ironic distance, but at the height of the Reaganomics era, the line "'cos the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mister Right" certainly didn't feel very ironic.

In case there was any doubt that Madonna "Material Girl" Penn and Madonna "Get Orff Moy Laaand" Ritchie are one and the same, you only need to glance at your ticket. If I'd actually paid for mine, it would have cost me £150. Madonna evidently feels that three years have entitled her to almost double her price. To a large extent, of course, you're paying for the frisson of being in the same room as one of the most famous human beings who has ever lived. Note "most famous", not "most talented" or "most groundbreaking". If Madonna has a genius, it's for knowing her limits and working with people who are talented. This is why the American Life album, despite some of the most cringeworthy lyrics in pop history ("I do yoga and pilates/ And the room is full of hotties"), was not a total disaster.

The actual show is slightly less spectacular than the gravity-defying stunts and cutting-edge choreography of her last jaunt, but the selection of songs, admittedly, is superior. "Burning Up", her second-ever single (never a hit, but a gay disco floor-filler), is an inspired choice, and "Into the Groove", "Papa Don't Preach", "Holiday" and in particular a genuinely uplifting "Like a Prayer" are popular choices. We're the best audience ever, she less-than-convincingly tells us in her weirdly Anglo accent (it's all "so good to be back home" and "cheers" and "mates" now)."Hanky Panky" is given a burlesque-meets-Billy-Smart's treatment, and you can't help noticing that her exercise regime has given her very weird thigh muscles. Even in the Eighties, she had the "Face of Monroe, legs of Maradona", as David Stubbs unforgettably put it. Nowadays, she looks as though she ought to be in Athens, competing for shot put gold.

Was Madonna ever sexy? She always made sex seem such hard work, like a cold swim prescribed by W K Kellogg, rather than a fun activity. Maybe for a short while, when she still had puppy fat around her belly, and wore tights torn by human hands. But the "Lucky Star" video seems a long, long time ago now.

And never longer than when she announces, "You know a song is good when you wish you'd written it... Listen to these words... Very simple... 'Imagine there's no heaven/ It's easy if you try...'" This is the moment when I wonder whether the £150 includes a complimentary sickbag. In front of Benetton advert footage of starving brown-skinned babies, the woman who owns half of Gloucestershire (or wherever), and went to court to prevent common people rambling on her turf, implores us to imagine "no possessions"; the woman who's been bombarding us with religious symbolism all night asks us to imagine "no religion" and "no hell below us, above us only sky". As the song closes, we see a Jewish child and a Palestinian child playing soccer, and a plug for an organisation calling itself Spirituality For Kids (as though more religion, and not less, will somehow make it easier for those kids to share a kickabout).

If I were the kind of journalist to say "I was there first", I'd urge you to log onto the Independent website and call up my column of 9 December, 2001, in order to prove that I wrote about The 5.6.7.8's before Quentin Tarantino had ever heard of them. Unfortunately, I was already a dozen years too late, because the superb Japanese rock'n'roll trio formed as long ago as 1988. It's since their unforgettable appearance in the restaurant scene in Kill Bill: Vol 2, and the subsequent use of "Woo Hoo" in a TV ad, that beehived, banshee-screaming, singer-guitarist Yoshiko Fujiyama, phenomenal drummer Sachiko Fujiyama and new-ish, doll-pretty bassist Saki Hori have finally gained a wider audience, playing to packed clubs across the UK and the planet.

And it's thoroughly deserved. Much as it goes against the grain to offer such muso praise, The 5.6.7.8's are remarkable musicians, and their raw surf-rockabilly sound, on their own material ("Bomb the Twist", "Woo Hoo") and covers ("Harlem Shuffle", "Green Onions") is an utter joy to behold. There's an infectious, appealing purity about their aesthetic: dress sharp, play sharper, pick a simple riff, bash it out at 100mph, and scream. The Olympic flame of the unsullied soul of rock'n'roll, kept alive in Japan (of all places). No mixed messages here.

Madonna: Wembley Arena, London HA9 (0870 739 0739), ton, Mon, Wed, Thur. The 5.6.7.8's: Barfly, Glasgow (0870 907 0999), ton; 100 Club, London W1 (020 7636 0933), Tue; Football Club, Hitchin (01462 635 398), Wed; Roadhouse, Manchester (0161 228 1789), Thur; tour continues

s.price@independent.co.uk

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