concert reviews

Lady Gaga at DAR Constitution Hall, Washington, DC, Tuesday 29 September 2009

Halloween came about a month early this year, in the form of last night's Lady Gaga show at DAR Constitution Hall. The ladies in the audience were dressed in outfits reminiscent of some of Gaga's most memorable getups: there were leotards and fishnets aplenty -- not to mention shiny stretch leggings, frilly miniskirts and, er, less. You could call it either empowering or tacky -- but it made for some really fantastic people-watching. (Say what you will about Gaga's garments, but at least she has the figure to pull 'em off. The same cannot be said for much of the Constitution Hall crowd.)

Not to be outdone by her fans, Gaga's 70-minute set included four wardrobe changes, ranging from a futuristic silver minidress to a black, sequined thong leotard to a coat made of bubbles.

With so little left to the imagination, it's no surprise that Gaga defined her mission thus: "My art is liberation. I make music and I make shows to make my fans feel free."

In case you're not getting the picture, her performance was a complete spectacle, as much about the glitz and flash as about the music itself. A bizarre video called "Who Shot Candy Warhol," starring Gaga, opened the show and served as a transition between several songs; it served little purpose other than to kill time during wardrobe changes, but its psychedelic moments (one scene featured Gaga robotically brushing her hair) added to the glitter of the performance.

Even with a minimal set and just three backup dancers, Gaga created a party atmosphere, and when she said "jump", by golly, the audience jumped. And waved their arms in the air. And screamed. For an artist whose songs are as uninhibited as her outfits (favorite topics: sex and drinking), this night was about escapism and, as Gaga put it, "liberation." For that hour, Constitution Hall bounced and rocked like a dance club on a Saturday night, and the crowd never stopped moving or sat down, even during slower numbers like "Brown Eyes" and "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)."

(And speaking of liberation, Gaga fully exercised her right to free expression, flipping the bird no less than five times and dropping the f-bomb like soap in a prison locker room.)

While Gaga did sing live during a few songs, she certainly never hid the fact that she was lip-syncing and/or singing along with a backing track during most of her set, like "Lovegame" and "Beautiful, Dirty, Rich." Often, she was just dancing along to her music, microphone by her side -- or pointed out at the audience. It didn't really matter, though: you don't go to a Gaga show to hear live singing, and there's no way she could've sung live while she was jumping around the stage.

Gaga did have a few surprises up her sleeve. Late in the set, she asked the crowd for a favor, "because I believe in the power of prayer." The audience snickered -- it's not what you'd expect to hear from a woman dressed in not much more than a bra and panties -- but Gaga continued by talking about how her father was having heart surgery, and the room silenced immediately. She can be such a caricature sometimes that it's weird even thinking that she has parents, but there it was: a tender request on the behalf of her dad. She later put out a plea to "be good to your mom and dad," even while commiserating with the crowd about parental-enforced curfews and rules.

Along with that softer side, the thing that can be so easily forgotten about Gaga is that she does have some chops beneath all of her outrageousness. She closed the encoreless set with a cabaret/jazz version of "Poker Face" (before reprising the song in its usual, dance-marathon style).

Singing live while playing the piano, she showed off a warm vibrato and a series of runs which were surprisingly good for someone so often labeled as just a flash-in-the-pan pop star. Her voice isn't close to the caliber of Christina Aguilera's, of course, but it's head-and-shoulders better than disposable pop stars like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus.

Her ability to re-invent her song in a completely different style was certainly impressive, even though she performed it in her traditionally outrageous way: spread-eagle on the piano bench, or leaning back with one foot propped up on the piano, or -- most strikingly -- standing on the piano bench, bent over at the waist to reach the keys, like a broken-down marionette doll.

Liberated or not, she never completely broke free from the whole Lady Gaga schtick -- but it's that act that made her performance so engaging. You could never really look away, because you certainly didn't want to miss what was coming next.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: (a publication of The Washington Post), 30 September 2009
.: Selected discography: The Fame Monster (Lady Gaga, 2009); The Fame (Lady Gaga, 2008).