The name that Lady Gaga was born with is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, and it’s the woman behind the first of those two middle names that’s the inspiration for both the provocative pop star’s 2016 album and the tour that arrived at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Sunday for two sold-out shows.
Her father’s sister Joanne died in 1974 at age 15, 12 years before Gaga was born. But, as the singer explained in a heartfelt introduction to the song that bears the name of her late aunt (who suffered from lupus), her death has been the source of an “intergenerational grief” that has haunted the family and Gaga herself. “I’ve been carrying a sadness around with me my entire life.”
“Joanne” was performed on acoustic guitar, with Gaga seated on a stool on one of four stages connected by footbridges that occasionally were lowered from the rafters, allowing Gaga and her dozen dancers to move across the area floor. (The band stayed put on the main stage and covered for their leader the six times she disappeared for costume changes by playing instrumental vamps.)
The album and tour’s title song provided an emotional center for an awkwardly structured show that was by turns serious-minded and celebratory. Sometimes, it was both of those things at once, as when Gaga finished the show with a soaring version of her piano ballad, “A Million Reasons,” dedicated to actor Bradley Cooper, whom she called “a true Philly boy,” and his mother, Gloria, who was in attendance.
(Gaga is starring alongside Cooper — who is also making his directorial debut — in a remake of A Star Is Born, slated for release next fall. Also, celebrity-gossip hounds, take note: She seemed to make reference to Taylor Kinney, the Lancaster County-native ex-fiance, when we noted in the song that “those Pennsylvania boys are so hard to leave.”)
There were moving moments such as when, between “Bad Romance” (the night’s unquestionable highlight) and “The Cure,” a dance-pop track that’s one of the stronger cuts on the uneven Joanne, the singer read aloud a letter written by a Trenton man about his struggles to come out as gay. She then climbed into the crowd to embrace him.
But the two-hour show consistently undercut its own momentum, as Gaga — who made her entrance at 9 p.m., with excitement building as a giant clock displayed a 10-minute countdown — exited every three songs or so, dividing the evening into seven short segments.
As pop stars who revel in artifice and transformation go, Gaga’s reputation as being much more musical than most precedes her. And it is born out in performance. Her voice is powerful and in no need of digital enhancement. She played guitar (and keytar!) while dancing in stiletto heels, and found her comfort zone on the grand piano that awaited her on the stage at the far end of the arena.
While there, she rallied the crowd behind her message of inclusion — before Joanne’s “Come to Mama” — to hear from people who were part of the LGBTQ community and from those who were not. “That’s great,” she said. “Everyone is welcome here.” And she sat beside a young fan on her piano bench as she belted out the bombastic power ballad “The Edge of Glory.”
Joanne is Gaga’s first release since Cheek to Cheek, her 2014 duets album with Tony Bennett, and the Wells Fargo shows are her first area appearance since she made a surprise showing last summer by singing Phil Ochs and Edith Piaf covers at a show in Camden while the Democratic National Convention was being held in Philadelphia.
Both of those were examples of the tendency of late by the diminutive singer — who is the subject of a documentary film, Gaga: Five Foot Two, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last week — to lean toward the more “authentic” side of her musical personality. More acoustic piano, less synth-pop!
That can be all well and good in the hands of someone as talented as she. But the strength of Gaga’s first and best albums — 2008’s The Fame, in particular — lies in the creative ways in which she reshaped slick disco sounds in her own subversive image.
Since reaching peak grossness while working with an onstage vomit artist in 2014, Gaga has toned down the outrageousness, putting more emphasis on classy musicality. Joanne the album attempts to balance the two, but most of the dance-pop excursions she goes on these days are neither as adventurous nor as catchy as, say, “Paparazzi” or “Love Game” from The Fame. The Joanne tour has no trouble connecting the artist on an emotional level with her audience, but it reaches back in time for the hits to find its fun.