There are few surprises anymore when it comes to mega-budgeted arena pop shows, thanks to 1) the fact that so much of the choreography and the lighting and the timing of video content hinges on the artist creating a fixed setlist and sticking to it, and 2) setlist.fm, which is the website of choice for concertgoers who don’t mind spoilers.
And so, for me at least, it’s always rather exhilarating when a singer strays from the script, which is what Ariana Grande did — for sentimental reasons — about three-quarters of the way through her “Sweetener Tour” concert at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Monday night.
“It’s actually a very special day: Today is my mom’s birthday,” the pony-tailed pop megastar said of her mother, Joan (who, for the record, turned 51 on Tuesday). “I haven’t done these songs in a couple years but ... they’re mom’s favorites. ... She’s like, ‘Why don’t you do those songs?’
“So we added a couple songs to the show tonight for my mom’s birthday. Happy birthday, mom. ... I love you.”
Then, standing on a miniature stage in the middle of the pit surrounded by her diamond-shaped catwalk (and roughly 200 fans who paid in the neighborhood of $400 apiece to stand that close), Grande’s heart seemed to swell a couple sizes as she belted two deep cuts from her 2013 debut album: “Tattooed Heart” and “Piano.”
This stripped-down bit of birthday-inspired balladeering stood out because Charlotte fans got to hear something exclusive (these songs haven’t been performed anywhere else this year) but also because it offered an unfettered showcase for her dipped-in-honey vocals — and a brief detour from the spectacle the 33 cities that have come before us on this tour have been privy to.
From a sumptuous “Last Supper”-inspired performance of “God Is a Woman” that bathed Grande and her 12 backup dancers in deep-red hues to a ghetto-fabulous rendition of “7 Rings” starring a low-riding pink Cadillac (it was spray-painted, mid-performance, with the word “Charlotte”), the show was exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from someone trying to hold onto your attention.
Tossing costume jewelry to shrieking fans seated in the floor section by the handful during “Bloodline”? Check. A 30-foot sphere hanging over the center of the arena that captures swirling video of celestial scenery during “NASA”? Done. Backup dancers twirling umbrellas like they’re in an old-fashioned Broadway musical during “No Tears Left to Cry”? Got that, too.
For the most part, it all worked, and considering that Grande is lucky to even be on tour right now at all, that’s a fairly astonishing feat.
I mean, she’s been through almost-unimaginable tragedy and heartache over the past two years — still healing from the bombing at a May 2017 show she was doing at Manchester Arena in England that killed 22 people and injured more than 800, as well as from the drug-overdose death of an ex-boyfriend (rapper Mac Miller, in September 2018) and a failed engagement (to “Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson, in October 2018).
Yet the singer — who’ll turn 26 on June 26 — is now operating at the top of her game, in spite of the circumstances. (She’s said music is what’s helping her heal, which is perhaps why she put out two full-length albums over the course of just six months and commenced with a major tour.)
In the four years since she last played Charlotte, Grande has earned a remarkable eight top-10 hits along with her first Grammy win this year for “Sweetener.” Also, whereas back then she didn’t yet seem completely comfortable in her own skin, there’s now a distinct effortlessness to the way she can use her voice to flit up and down four octaves in a matter of seconds; to the way she can keep in lockstep with her backup dancers without ever missing a step; to the way she can confidently pull off bralette-and-miniskirt-with-thigh-high-heeled-boots ensembles in a rainbow of colors.
Speaking of rainbows, Monday night’s one-song encore featured a flourish of them, emblazoned on pride flags being waved by Grande and her dancing cohorts as they skipped to the beat of arguably her biggest hit, “Thank U, Next.” The sold-out crowd populated predominately by teens and young women welcomed blasts of bright confetti with squeals of delight as the headliner blew kisses.
It was one final reminder that she can, emphatically, put the show in showy.
Yet as I headed for the exits, I have to admit that I was struck most by the songs that she dedicated to her mom — and by the fact that, even if you strip away all of the spectacle, Ariana Grande is still pretty spectacular.
Ariana Grande’s setlist
1. “Raindrops (An Angel Cried)”
2. “God Is A Woman”
3. “Bad Idea”
4. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”
6. “Be Alright”
9. “Side to Side”
11. “7 Rings”
12. “Love Me Harder”
15. “Fake Smile”
16. “Make Up”
17. “Right There”
18. “You’ll Never Know”
19. “Break Your Heart Right Back”
21. “Get Well Soon”
23. “Tattooed Heart”
25. “The Light Is Coming”
26. “Into You”
27. “Dangerous Woman”
28. “Break Free”
29. “No Tears Left to Cry”
30. “Thank U, Next”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes