It’s 2:11 am on Saturday morning, and I’m making my way up the narrow staircase of Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem with a few hundred other people and a saxophonist and tuba player right behind me playing Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.” The pop icon herself is somewhere up ahead, leading the entire audience of a secret pop-up show she had just performed out of the intimate basement venue and into the streets. Joined by jazz musician and Late Night bandleader Jon Batiste, Madonna was putting her own spin on his signature impromptu public moving musical gatherings known as “Love Riots.” Though the procession only lasted for about a block before ending in front of the red doors of the landmark St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, it felt, to borrow a few words from the song, like a dream, no end and no beginning.
A little before midnight, guests had filed into a 1920s speakeasy-style performance space underneath Marcus Samuelson’s Red Rooster restaurant. Madonna intimates including daughter Lola Leon, photographer Steven Klein and the ballroom legend and former backup dancer Jose Xtravaganza mixed with celebrity guests like Aquaria, Julia Fox, Fin Argus and Richie Shazam. There was technically a roped-off VIP section, but the space was so small it hardly seemed to matter. Gabe Ocasio-Cortez, brother of AOC, was spotted in the crowd on the other side of that divider. Belvedere Vodka provided the refreshments for the evening with signature cocktails like the Madame X (vodka shaken with pomegranate juice and a bit of lime and honey, garnished with rosemary).
Ostensibly the pop-up performance was meant to promote the Madame X tour documentary which premiered on Paramount+ Friday, October 8. Madonna had been busy promoting the feature this week with an appearance on The Tonight Show and the launch of a special merch collection featuring hoodies and tees celebrating Madonna in her secret agent alter-ego. Though, taken with Madonna’s other recent semi-secret pop-up show, a Pride party back in June in which she danced atop the bar of the Boom Boom Room in a blue wig and mesh shirt, one gets the sense that maybe Madonna just really missed the rush of a live performance.
I’m not sure if it’s some grande realization or some dud of an understatement to point out that at the base of the record-setting, culture-shifting career is a woman who just really loves performing. Though she’s helped set the template for the modern pop arena show and played some of the biggest stages in the world, she seemed just as enthused to play for a few hundred people in a basement. If not more so. Playing with a live band led by Batiste, Madonna, dressed in a short black dress with a dramatic leg slit, opened the show with the theatrical Madame X cut “Dark Ballet.” She vamped around the stage, climbing onto Batiste’s piano and placing her black leather biker cap on his head. Standing atop the instrument, she punctuated the vocal crescendo of the song with a casual “motherfuckers.” At another point, she broke out her acoustic guitar to lead a cover of Cesária Évora’s Cape Verdian classic “Sodade.” When she shared that her time living in Spain had inspired Madame X stating, “Madame X loves Lisbon,” a member of the crowd shouted, “Madame X loves New York.” “Does she?” she shot back mischievously. A rendition of “La Isla Bonita” ended with Madonna straddling a support column above the audience. When she hit the “when a boy loves a girl” lyrics, she didn’t leave it hanging over the heavily queer audience. “Or when a girl loves a girl, or a boy loves a boy, or they loves they,” she added without skipping a beat while gyrating down the column. She made a rendition of the album cut “Crazy” seem as vital as any of her biggest hits, before finally launching into the performance of “Like a Prayer” that would take us into the streets. Surrounded by Batiste, a quartet of backup singers, and a little bit of light security, Madonna allowed her fans to buzz around her like bees celebrating their queen as we all made the procession down 126th street.
Earlier in the night, a fan mused on whether or not Madonna had ever actually played Harlem before. She had. I’d Googled it earlier and turned up photos of her doing her own makeup before a performance at a venue called the Celebrity Club in June of 1983 a month before her debut album was released. The venue was located just a block over from the supper club she performed in last night. Almost 40 years and a stratospheric career later, Madonna was back right where she belonged.