The young “Problem” singer proves she’s got longevity, with a surprisingly under-utilized voice and a large, smartly G-rated production.
Music, Published on Mon Mar 09 2015
At the Air Canada Centre, March 8
Merchandisers did brisk business on plastic glow-in-the-dark cat ears Sunday night at the Air Canada Centre.
At least a couple thousand girls — the audience was probably 90 percent female, ranging from 5 to 45 — wore the headbands as both a sign of allegiance and a nod of respect to headliner Ariana Grande and her prior career as a TV actress, portraying the character Cat Valentine on the Nickelodeon shows Victorious and Sam and Cat.
That was before, of course, Grande decided to go the route of so many Disney-era teen actors, and stake a domain in pop music.
And although she’s only been at it a relatively short time — Yours Truly in 2013 followed by My Everything in 2014 are her only full-length releases to date, along with a bevy of guest slots on other collaborations — the 21-year-old exhibits enough drawing power to fill the Air Canada Centre with approximately 14,000 screaming fans, indicating she’ll probably be around for a good, long run.
As the charismatic, pony-tailed Grande — also sporting the cat ears accoutrement for a generous portion of her 90-minute set — proved repeatedly throughout the evening, she certainly has the performance thing down pat, exuding both the calm and confidence, poise and professionalism that are expected of today’s millennial pop stars.
It’s almost as though there’s a list of seven commandments that they all subscribe to:
1. Thou shalt employ a large team of impressive dancers to exercise some meaningless, forgettable choreography.
2. Thou shalt have a large band supplemented with a DJ and a (in this case, a three-piece) string section.
3. Thou shalt include canned harmonies.
4. Thou shalt pull out all the bells and whistles one would expect in a top-flight production: fireworks, confetti, dry ice, lasers, video, more fireworks, more confetti, and at least one explosion.
5. Thou shalt employ the use of hydraulics to hover above the crowd at least once, nay twice, during any concert tour.
6. Thou shalt have a video cameo of any high-profile guest (usually rap) collaborator to insert where appropriate. Grande’s boyfriend Big Sean appeared on screen during “Best Mistake” and “Right There,” unlike Saturday’s show in Detroit, where he appeared in person.
7. Thou shalt have a minimum of five or six costume changes because, well, you’re hot.
Ariana Grande fulfilled this particular manifesto, using the fourth commandment to the best of her abilities: all that stuff happened in the opening high-octane number “Bang Bang.” The hydraulics came as the singer hovered above the stage on a cloud and, almost immediately afterwards, a giant chandelier.
But this Grandestanding is not what separated Ariana from the rest of the TV-weaned pack. In fact, there was a trio of characteristics that, in this scribe’s opinion, bodes well for her future.
The first is that amazing, almost underutilized voice of hers: she sounds like Mariah Carey with restraint (and believe me, that’s a compliment). There were times when her band overpowered her — and some of that could have been due to the cold she said she was suffering from — but when she took a solo spotlight, as on “Honeymoon Avenue,” there was a lot of soul and believability. You can’t say that about many of today’s TV ingénue converts.
The second is that Grande gave her audience a G-rated show — when was the last time you witnessed a tap-dancing DJ? — and was mindful that her audience contained a lot of young impressionable girls who obviously idolize her. She was sexy and romantic in songs like “Hands on Me,” but not overtly so, and of course, blatantly aware of her cuteness enough to play it up through video intros.
But the biggest promise she showed also happened to be probably the most boring part of the show. During one of the many costume breaks, Imogen Heap — one of Grande’s influences — appeared on screen to talk about this dull new invention she concocted: computerized gloves that allow her to manipulate her voice live in performance.
To her credit, Grande tried them, sounding like a Vocoder experiment that Neil Young pulled off during his Trans era as she harmonized with herself.
It was a pointless exercise that probably baffled her fans more than it entertained them, but the fact that Grande is open enough to experiment reveals an imagination that will elevate her game with subsequent releases, indicating she’s not going to be satisfied with simply being famous for fame’s sake.
As she saved the best for last — an energetic take on “Problem” and the blood-rushing burst of “One Last Time” — Grande left her fans happily buzzing about a well-consummated production, and with the anticipation that the so-called “Honeymoon Tour” was just a taste of what’s to come.
One quibble: if you happened to be in the first row, your sight lines were obstructed by monitors that prevented you from seeing everything that was happening on stage, despite the presence of video screens.
Not cool, but thank god for the catwalk.