Lady Gaga is a master of performance art, but she has yet to master the art of performance.
Her 2¼-hour concert Monday at Xcel Energy Center didn’t satisfy in the two areas in which Gaga has specialized onstage: It wasn’t weird enough (she can be weird in a good way), and it wasn’t intimate enough (she’s at her best during piano ballads).
Of course, dealing with this duality in concert is a challenge. Touring behind her most personal but least successful album, “Joanne,” Gaga responded with the straightest of her four arena presentations. There were no hard-to-follow, fantastical story lines, outrageously outré outfits or garishly over-the-top stage sets.
To be sure, Gaga came up with some compelling staging, with platforms rising and falling to different levels on the main stage and then three satellite stages, connected by bridges that floated down from pods in the ceiling when needed.
What hindered this concept was that too often Gaga got lost in the visuals — the wash of lights, the stage fog, her wide-brimmed hats and dark (or white) costumes blending into the dark (or white) outfits of her dozen dancers. At times on the many big dance numbers — she’s become a more confident but no more graceful dancer — one kept wondering: Where’s Gaga?
There was no problem finding Gaga when she landed at the satellite stage farthest from the main stage. First of all, this secondary platform was lit Gaga style, with all kinds of neon and bright colors. She brightened things up with the Broadway-ish “Come to Mama,” a track from “Joanne.”
Then she did a solo number on her transparent grand piano. But it wasn’t a simple, straightforward rendition of the 2011 anthem “The Edge of Glory.” She prefaced it by dedicating it to her wheelchair-using Minnesota friend of five years, Emma, who recently took 30 steps with a walker. As Gaga sang, she paused periodically and talked about Emma and her courage and determination.
Not only was Gaga’s voice soaring with heartfelt emotion for the first time all night, but her conversation was so uplifting, so reassuring, so Gaga — the kind of message that she has sent to her followers of misfits and misunderstoods. Forget all the sparkly baubles, gaudy eye makeup and long bleached hair. This was all about real, deep-felt emotion. It was a goose-bump moment.
“Take 31 steps next time, Emma,” urged Gaga, who happens to be 31.
Gaga being Gaga, though, means she had to do something — at least a little something — to be provocative. Probably the most outrageous thing she did Monday was roll around on a satellite stage, ask a man in the front row to take her picture and then strike several provocative poses. This, of course, was a prelude to her 2009 hit “Paparazzi.”
The prelude that really mattered was her long introduction to the song “Joanne,” a number inspired by her aunt, who died of lupus 12 years before Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was born. Gaga talked about alcoholism and other problems in her family. She said she had to go backward with this song in order to forgive and change.
She then sang “Joanne” on acoustic guitar, making it sound like a country ditty. It showed how raw emotion and intimacy are the essence of Lady Gaga.
The only way she could top that was to bring Emma, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Be Kind,” onstage for the encore. The crowd of 16,000 roared. Then Gaga sat down at her grand piano and delivered “Million Reasons,” her hit ballad that was such a big hit at the Super Bowl halftime earlier this year. Maybe she has mastered small moments on big stages.