Concert review: Ariana Grande’s Sweetener tour is full of ear candy
It takes considerable strength to overpower a rapturous audience, a cavernous venue, a forceful backing band with a snappy snare, seat-rattling low-end and your own overzealous backing track. Monday night at the Bell Centre as part of her Sweetener world tour, 25-year-old Floridian pop star Ariana Grande out-muscled them all and made it look effortless.
The Thank U, Next and No Tears Left to Cry hitmaker didn’t skimp on the booming vocals, gaining momentum with every show-stopping vibrato over the course of a satisfying 100-minute set that primarily delved into her most recent releases, 2018’s Sweetener and 2019’s Thank U, Next, a pair of zeitgeist-y albums dropped in rapid succession. It was a mammoth pop show with all the trimmings befitting a current-day chart topper of Grande’s pedigree, but it was conventional pop essentials — singing, dancing and sturdy side players — that ultimately separated this extravaganza from the countless other overt pop spectacles that roll through town with regularity.
The night was divided into five acts with their own monochromatic colour schemes, plus an encore. Grande and her phalanx of dancers emerged on stage from beneath the floor clad in red, mimicking the Last Supper on a long table. Then perched atop the table, Grande went into the no-nonsense God Is A Woman, followed by the comparatively cluttered Bad Idea. Both served as introductions to Grande’s brand of vocal gymnastics, but it was the upbeat Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored, with Grande at one end of the table and a dancer receiving her barbs at the other end, where the show started to find its groove.
A studious combination of popular R&B and dancehall beats in the early going, it was eventually the latter that won out. The pink-hued second act began with a home video of Grande as a child playing a maniacal news anchor. Digital rain fell as she sang the hypnotically circular R.E.M., while the bright and ebullient title track to Sweetener offered a glimpse at some of the vocal achievements to come. That track was immediately contrasted with the more cut-and-dry R&B of Successful. While the show’s maximalist tendencies focused on Grande’s own pipes, a pink prop car found its way on stage for My Favourite Things interpolating 7 Rings, one of the undeniable new hits from Thank U, Next that the room was clearly clamouring for.
Montreal was treated to a brief exclusive after that in the form of Monopoly, a song that came out the same day as the show. Collaborator Victoria Monét joined Grande on stage for the rap number.
Act 3 in purple began sans dancers with a rare older cut, Love Me Harder from the now-geriatric My Everything from 2014. Along with the proceeding Breathin, the two tracks encouraged a hearty call and response, which may have been going on the entire time, but with the immodest volume of the show on stage drowning out everything else, it’s hard to say for sure when the crowd starting belting along. For NASA, Grande and her dancers went through the crowd and toward the front of the circular extension of the stage as a giant spherical moon descended atop the VIP floor pass holders. During Goodnight N Go, Grande had her arms outstretched to the audience and almost got pulled in, surprising her momentarily.
It was toward the end of Act 4 that the vocal highlight of the night bludgeoned the room: the propulsive torch song One Last Time. On a night where Grande frequently soared above the pop fray, it was on this simplistic holdover from My Everything where she so forcefully delivered the vocal, the background noise and pop artifice melted away completely, leaving a bonafide talent who can silence a room with or without the customary arena-act tools.
The final act was a quick, crowd-pleasing procession of hits — Dangerous Woman, Break Free and No Tears Left to Cry — while Grande saved the most-anticipated cut, Thank U, Next, for the encore. The last song, with her and her dancers rocking tartan, was presented more as a chance to say goodbye than as a rewarding conclusion, but it’s unlikely anyone left feeling shortchanged.