Lady Gaga, trou­ba­dour or superstar?

The singer thrived in the for­mer role while seem­ing bored in the lat­ter at Fo­rum show.

Los Angeles Times - - POP & HISS - MIKAEL WOOD POP MU­SIC CRITIC mikael.wood@la­times.com Twit­ter: @mikael­wood

Im­ages of a stair­case seem­ingly in­spired by Fritz Lang’s “Me­trop­o­lis.” A Latin-ac­cented beat that echoed Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” Sharply an­gled shoul­der pads like the ones David Bowie wore dur­ing his Ziggy Star­dust phase.

These were just some of the many pop-cul­ture ref­er­ences Lady Gaga threw at her au­di­ence — and in a se­quence of just three songs — Tues­day night at the Fo­rum, where the singer brought the first of three con­certs in her lat­est world tour.

A mul­ti­me­dia ex­trav­a­ganza with cos­tume changes, slick video in­ter­ludes and a net­work of mov­able bridges that con­nected the main stage to a sec­ond plat­form at the rear of the arena, the two-hour show of­fered plenty of the flash and the­ater that have been Lady Gaga’s spe­cialty since she emerged nearly a decade ago with high-con­cept sin­gles such as “Poker Face” and “Bad Ro­mance.”

Yet this tour, which launched last week and will con­tinue through mid-De­cem­ber, fol­lows the star’s 2016 al­bum, “Joanne,” which she’s called her most per­sonal work. She re­it­er­ated that idea Tues­day in a long story she told about the real-life Joanne, an aunt whose death at a young age had a dra­matic ef­fect on her fam­ily; Lady Gaga de­scribed the record as her at­tempt to ex­plore the pain passed down from her grand­par­ents to her par­ents to the singer and her sis­ter.

So in ad­di­tion to the elab­o­rate set pieces her fans ex­pect — “Bloody Mary,” for in­stance, had the look of a spir­ited satanic orgy — Tues­day’s per­for­mance fea­tured a num­ber of smaller mo­ments, in­clud­ing the new al­bum’s ti­tle track, for which Lady Gaga perched on a stool and ac­com­pa­nied her­self on acous­tic gui­tar. (True, she was ba­si­cally dressed as Capt. Jack Spar­row. But still.)

What was sur­pris­ing was how much more ef­fec­tive the in­ti­mate episodes were than the rest of the con­cert. Not be­cause Lady Gaga had never stripped down be­fore; she’s been pep­per­ing her gigs with pi­ano bal­lads for years, ea­ger to demon­strate her vo­cal chops to any­body con­vinced her singing is a stu­dio cre­ation.

But in the past those mo­ments were of­ten the phoni­est, as though she’d en­tered a kind of stage-school zom­bie state. At April’s Coachella fes­ti­val, the singer be­gan her head­lin­ing set with a thrilling 45-minute sprint through some of her high­esten­ergy, most provoca­tive ma­te­rial — then brought the pro­duc­tion to a stand­still when she sat down be­hind a key­board and turned her song “The Edge of Glory” into showy but un­feel­ing cabaret.

Here, in con­trast, she was funny and poignant as she did the new record’s “Come to Mama” at a glow­ing pi­ano po­si­tioned on that smaller stage. “Joanne” was dis­arm­ingly ten­der, with a blend of grief and hope that felt lived, not re­hearsed.

Even “The Edge of Glory,” which she again per­formed by her­self, seemed reawak­ened to the trans­for­ma­tive sen­sa­tions the song de­scribes. Half­way through the tune, Lady Gaga paused to say a few words about a friend who’d re­cently died, then started back in on what ap­peared to be the wrong chord. Yet the mis­take hardly fazed her; she was plugged deeply into the mu­sic’s emo­tion, not at all wor­ried by the de­mands of pre­ci­sion.

In­deed, the show’s big­ger num­bers — those with lights and chore­og­ra­phy and a mus­cu­lar back­ing band — sug­gested she’s be­gun to tire of care­fully syn­chro­niz­ing all those mov­ing parts. In busy old hits like “LoveGame” and “Tele­phone,” Lady Gaga put across lit­tle vis­i­ble ex­cite­ment, while “Bad Ro­mance” had her wear­ing an over­sized pair of winged glasses, per­haps to dis­guise a look of ut­ter bore­dom in her eyes.

And you could al­most hear the re­gret in “The Cure,” a laugh­ably trendy elec­tro-pop sin­gle she re­leased in the wake of the un­der­whelm­ing com­mer­cial per­for­mance of “Joanne.”

Lady Gaga closed Tues­day’s con­cert with an ap­peal­ingly raw ren­di­tion of the new al­bum’s coun­try-ish “Mil­lion Rea­sons,” and here she in­ter­rupted her­self for an­other aside, in this case to con­grat­u­late her au­di­ence for watch­ing her half­time show at this year’s Su­per Bowl.

Her point seemed to be about the mes­sage of in­clu­sion her fans had sent with their en­thu­si­asm, the way they’d helped make a on­ce­rigid Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tion safe for Lady Gaga’s em­brace of all kinds.

But re­ally she was just re­mind­ing us that she’d played the Su­per Bowl — one clear sign that superstar raz­zledaz­zle dies hard.

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