BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Ariana Grande titled her third studio album “Dangerous Woman” not in the literal sense – she probably weighs 100 pounds and likes to wear kitty ears, for God’s sake – but because it evoked a sense of empowerment.
For the accompanying tour, which is nearing the end of its U.S. run before returning in Europe next month, Grande presents a new layer of confidence and maturity, a live experience that is as much cinematic as musical.
At Philips Arena on Wednesday - where she last played in 2015 - the diminutive singer rotated through four segments of a performance, each tailored with different costumes, lighting and vibes.
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After the telltale countdown clock (set for 11 minutes) hit zero, Grande and her 10 black-clad male dancers burst onstage with “Vogue”-inspired dance moves for the slinky finger-snapper “Be Alright.”
But Madonna is barely in Grande’s DNA. Instead, it’s pop diva Mariah Carey whose younger years (and range) are revisited in so much of Grande’s oeuvre.
Stalking the stage in stiletto boots during “Bad Decisions,” Grande produced high notes as colossal as the ponytail swinging from the crown of her head. Her high-gloss pop swirled like the columns of white lights beamed from the ceiling, as rivers of dry ice flooded the stage and cascaded off the catwalk that stretched into the floor seats.
Grande’s catalog is stuffed with perfect Top 40 songs – the type that are brilliant in their generic-ness. But what differentiates Grande and radio hits such as “One Last Time” and the reggae-tinged “Side to Side,” is that voice.
It wasn’t always used ideally at her Atlanta show (“Forever Boy” was little more than shrieking notes and body-vibrating bass), but when it was, it’s safe to say that Grande, 23, is a queen in the making.
She danced all over the vocal scale on “Touch It” and stood surrounded by more burbling dry ice on the smoky, “Leave Me Lonely.”
The third –and most vibrant – of her four sets marked the first glimpse of her band, a quartet playing white instruments atop white risers. They powered through the punchy “Bang Bang,” which Grande made her own even though she’s only featured on one-third of the song (lasers and swirling yellow lights took care of the rest), and offered a perky disco beat for “Greedy.”
But as much fun as songs such as “Problem” and “Break Free” can be for a live audience to share – and this nearly sold-out crowd included Grande’s new friend, Atlanta-based Broadway director Kenny Leon , who worked with her on last year’s “Hairspray” reboot – it was far more satisfying to witness Grande’s vocal prowess at work.
When she stood center stage, clasping the microphone and belting “I Don’t Care” and the stylish “Moonlight,” you immediately felt that this traditional-singer stance is Grande’s comfort zone.
That's what is dangerous about Grande. She’s still so young, yet already so potent. Just think of where she’ll go next.
Show openers Little Mix were greeted with frenzied squeals as the quartet marched out in matching knee-high boots and rolled into the pop-rap of “Salute.”
Since winning “The X Factor” in 2011, Jade Thirlwall, Perrie Edwards, Leigh-Anne Pinnock and Jesy Nelson have circled the globe on their own and with Demi Lovato (in 2014) , released four albums and successfully cultivated a career big enough to keep them splashed across British tabloids.
But on stage, it’s all business, as the foursome presented a polished set that included the sassy handclapper “Wings,” the dancehall-lite “Hair” (featuring Sean Paul on record) and new single “Touch,” which accelerated appealingly from ballad to club thumper.
No band was visible during their 40-minute set, but each of the young women earned a vocal spotlight, demonstrating more-than-capable pipes and adept harmonizing while engaging in plenty of thigh workouts.
Their infectious 2015 stomp-and-clap singalong “Black Magic” - their third No. 1 hit in the U.K. – and the aural middle finger, “Shout Out to My Ex,” confirmed that Little Mix has extended girl power to a new generation.