Don’t worry, she’s fine.
Ariana is fine, everyone. She’s had a tumultuous year for any person to endure, celebrity or otherwise – the whirlwind romance, engagement, separation and open mockery of her relationship with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson; the tragic death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, with whom she had produced music; and the residual aftermath of the 2017 terrorist bombing that took place following her Manchester, England concert, killing 23 and injuring many more.
The release of two full-length albums (“Sweetener” and “Thank U, Next”) within a six-month window is nothing to balk at, either. This projected resiliency over these many months shows a strength of character that few of her pop peers might have been able to pull off as well as she has. She's got a real voice, and knows how to sing it. And rest assured her signature ponytail – which did not appear the last time she performed here – is once again swinging like a lioness.
On stage Friday night at KeyBank Center, for the third stop on the Sweetener World Tour, she took us to the moon and back.
That kind of actually happened. Picture it: Two-thirds into her 27-song set list, following a jaunty medley of “Right There / You'll Never Know / Break Your Heart Right Back” and a sublime “NASA,” a gigantic white sphere descends upon a tiny satellite stage in the middle of a fan pit. She’s engulfed by anxious, barrier-separated fans and their starry-lit cell phones, but everyone’s aglow in a heavenly 360-degree projection of the moon on this enormous floating orb, which tempers nerves and unexpectedly soothes.
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In stage production terms, it is a calculation of exquisite stagecraft and bombastic spectacle. It works beautifully. “Goodnight n Go,” one of her latest electronic lullabies, is the perfect match for this kind of technology, and the cherry on top of an already impressive show.
The rest of the show exists as if in celestial orbit of this moment. A curved white backdrop at the head of the stage is flanked by another large white round thing – a flatter but contoured panel on which projected images give the appearance of looking through a looking glass or magnified makeup mirror.
A streaming waterfall rushes down the surface of the stage and onto a long oval-shaped runway that this week has been tweeted as looking toilet-like. I can’t argue with that; in person, it’s even more of a commode. But in all, a sophisticated, restrained look. Art direction ranges from Apple screensaver to the latest MOMA installation – perhaps inconsistent in tone but always striving for curation.
The set list largely covers both new albums, oscillating between “Sweetener’s” gentler pre-engagement grooves to “Thank U, Next’s” rougher post-breakup confessions. A triumphant “God Is a Woman” opens the show with a “Last Supper”-esque tableau. “No Tears Left to Cry” throws a fun party at the set’s closing. And “Thank U, Next” recreates the nostalgic humor of its music video, cleverly recreating favorite woman-led revenge comedies of the last couple decades.
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Only the mid-tempo banger “Breathin,” a standout track that never really got its pop-culture moment, is kind of wasted in its direction, but it still leaves an impression. Almost all of the previous hits are there, too – “Dangerous Woman,” Be Alright,” “Break Free,” “Into You,” “Side to Side” – some abridged but in full swing. Hard to find fault in the music here, or in her radiant, rafter-reaching soprano.
Opening act Social House proved nothing, except that there’s only one Flava Flav, and these guys aren’t it. Normani, on the other hand, gave the most perfectionist, prepared, researched and executed opening set I’ve ever seen. She channels all of Beyonce’s calling cards – and probably a few from her tour boss Grande – but makes herself known as a name to remember.
March 22 in KeyBank Center.
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