Madonna shows are all about getting the kinks out. So naturally, the opening date of her Drowned World Tour 2001 had its share of sex acts and (minor) slipups. And what better place for the High Priestess of Pop to stage her long-awaited concert comeback than the vital, colorful, pansexual hothouse that is Barcelona? If they didn't know it beforehand, the 17,833 fans who piled into the sold-out Palau Sant Jordi found out it was, this night at least, the hottest place in town. Temperatures in the arena (the first stop on a 48-show, 17-city tour that hits the States July 21) rose so steadily that the crush of people on the venue's floor coughed up casualties before the 20-song set even began.
As it turns out, the chaos was apt for a show that, judging by its title, is loosely inspired by British author J.G. Ballard's apocalyptic 1962 novel ''The Drowned World.'' Yeah, looks like Madonna's been cribbing again, but this time her source material is pretty highbrow. ''The Drowned World'' is the second of four futuristic disaster novels by Ballard -- each with its own theme of air, fire, water, and earth -- in which the protagonist, at the end of a long journey through heat-engulfed and fantastic worlds, discovers the Truth. ''Drowned World/Substitute for Love,'' the opening track on Madonna's cathartic ''Ray of Light'' (1998), is where the material girl first drew the analogy between Ballard's ravaged landscapes and her soul-killing obsession with success. As ''Ray of Light'' and ''Music'' (2000) made clear, mature Madonna's ''truth'' turned out to be not showbiz but love and motherhood and family.
Given the choice of sitting through a concert conceived by your mum or a crotch grabber like ''Virgin''-era Madonna, which would you choose? The crotch grabber, of course. Still, if Madonna's Drowned World doesn't reach the exhilarating heights of 1990's Blonde Ambition tour (which, for all its randiness, made a powerfully moving statement about family), it offers plenty of artiness, attitude, eye candy, and its own brand of ambition.
Like Ballard's series, the show is presented in four parts (though, in fairness, it would take a Booker Prize jurist to make the connection to the obscure novels), each with a distinct visual and lyric theme. In the opening segment, Madonna's recent songs of spiritual and emotional awakening (''Ray of Light,'' ''Impressive Instant'') are dresssed down in raucous punk. White lights pound the bare stage as Madonna, in tattered black garb and tartan kilt, emerges in a cloud of smoke and launches into ''Drowned World.'' Her spasmodic dancers -- 10 in all, in jackboots, Mohawks, and gas masks -- hurtle across the stage when they're not tormenting or humping the bitchy, strutting Madonna. ''F--- you, motherf---ers!'' she barks at the crowd between a hammering ''Candy Perfume Girl'' and a hammy ''Beautiful Stranger.''
This CBGB-from-hell (in which Madonna punches out power chords on a Les Paul, the first of several guitars she'll play throughout the night) gives way to a Butoh Japanese sequence in which she breathtakingly reimagines her most emotionally turbulent and vulnerable recent material (''Frozen,'' ''Mer Girl,'' ''Nobody's Perfect''). Silhouettes of scorched trees against racing clouds of blood red illuminate the set's 38 video monitors, as Madonna rises center stage in a kimono with an astonishing 52-foot sleeve span. In the age of female empowerment (the emphatic theme of this section), even geishas like to mix it up, so Madonna, incorrigible appropriator, lifts the aerial stunts from ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' for a soaring, show-stopping martial arts battle with a samurai (''Sky Fits Heaven'').
The irony of Madonna's gallop from world-beating egotist to enlightened spiritualist is that the resulting personal freedom comes with its own sense of entitlement. In the evening's third act -- featuring Madonna's already overplayed cowgirl shtick -- ''I Deserve It,'' ''Don't Tell Me,'' and ''Gone,'' from last year's ''Music,'' match up well with the sexually liberated lilt of '94 Madonna: ''Secret'' (accompanied by a beautiful video montage of riverside baptismals) and ''Human Nature,'' which prompts the oddly natural sight of Madonna lap-dancing a mechanical bull. (Not so awe-inspiring is the night's lone new tune, ''The Funny Song,'' a jokey abuse tale that should have the Dixie Chicks calling their copyright lawyers.)
What's left after punks, geishas, and cowpokes? For the delirious Barcelonans on the floor, water (and we're not talking figuratively) would have been welcome. What they got was a return to familiar turf: The Spanish trappings and uplift of ''Lo Que Siente La Mujer'' (''What It Feels Like for a Girl''), ''La Isla Bonita,'' and ''Holiday'' (one of only two pre-'94 songs performed) made up the final set, before a thumping, roof-raising (cue the confetti cannons!) encore of ''Music.''
So how was the music? Loud, energetic, well-sung, and perhaps a little too often beside the point. Not unlike 1993's disappointing Girlie Show (the last time Madonna toured), Drowned World's music struggles to rise above its theatrics. Still, there are plenty of reasons to bow at this artist's feat. And if you've only seen those hyperventilating imitations that are the live performances of Britney and Christina, you'll be awed by Madonna's palpable life force and intelligence. Which made the evening's arch parting shot -- to the fans and her unworthy competition -- all the more bizarre.
After Barcelona's faithful had waited eight years for Madonna's return, the Drowned World extravaganza ended a mere one hour and 37 minutes after it began. Before the crowd could even hoist their lighters, the British comedian Ali G materialized on the video screens. ''She ain't comin' back, so go on, p---off,'' he snapped. ''We got the Backstreet Boys in this venue tomorrow and let's face it, none of us want to be around for that.''