By Carla Meyer
Britney Spears was several songs into her concert Thursday night at Power Balance Pavilion when her performance truly began to sparkle.
Call it the cut-offs factor.
Spears spent the first part of the show illustrating the "Femme Fatale" theme of her tour -- which kicked off in Sacramento -- by wearing shiny bikinis, a 1940s-inspired gold cape and a billowing skirt a la Marilyn Monroe 's in "The Seven Year Itch."
After she changed into rhinestone-studded Daisy Dukes for "Baby One More Time," the difference was remarkable.
Though Spears performed like a pro throughout the show, hitting all her marks, she had shown hesitancy in her movements - natural for the first stop on a tour. But that hesitancy vanished when she put on the denim. She seemed at ease.
The Louisiana's native's sexiness has always been more good ol' gal than femme fatale.
Spears captivated during the cut-offs segment, singing her own hits "Slave 4 U" and "Womanizer" while covering - and clearly relishing -- Rihanna's "S&M" and Madonna's "Burning Up," the latter of which she performed while straddling a giant prop guitar.
It was not as dirty as it sounds, if only because Spears, at 29, still retains an air of wholesomeness that has survived the schoolgirl uniforms, giant snakes and tabloid traumas.
She can still seem wholesome because she inspires an unusual amount of empathy, for a big star. There's a desire to see her succeed that derives from her audience having watched her grow up, and struggle, in the spotlight.
That's why it was so satisfying to see her relax, and appear to be having as much fun as the enthusiastic audience at Power Balance Pavilion.
The sellout crowd -- composed mainly of young women who were kids when Spears was a teen star -- thrilled from the start to Spears' stellar pop songs. The set list, containing several electro-pop songs from Spears' 2011 album "Femme Fatale," provided constant hooks and so much big, fat bass that there's a song from the album called "Big Fat Bass."
That Spears' show features the heavy use of backing tracks is no surprise at this point. She didn't exactly start out on the Lilith Fair, singing earnest folk songs and strumming guitar.
The stage set's Deco-inspired metal and neon touches reflected the "Femme Fatale" theme well, but the abundant props sometimes overwhelmed Spears and her amazingly agile backup dancers/acrobats. Along with riding the giant guitar, Spears rides in a car and on various apparati.
The show's "Femme Fatale" narrative, explained by video clips in which a villainous guy threatens Spears-as-Mata Hari, was comparatively unfussy.
Opener Nicki Minaj 's narrative, by contrast, was a puzzle involving Minaj's alter ego Roman Zolanski and a figure who looked like Jigsaw from the "Saw" movies, but in priest's robes. Or maybe Jigsaw and Roman Zolanski were the same figure.
The kook factor only enhanced Minaj's magnetism.
It is tempting to call Minaj the best female rapper out there. But that is reductionist. She's a compelling, inventive rapper regardless of gender, alternating agitation and smooth flow in delivering clever lyrics.
But it's Minaj's attention to detail in performance -- from the cut of her wig and shine of her space-inspired suit to movements that go from Barbie doll-stiff to controlled grooving to death-scene flop to the floor -- that put her in another realm.
Throughout much of a set that included plenty of rough language and boasting, Minaj maintained a pleasant, radiant expression. She used the big screens on either side of the stage as her canvas, subtly working her eyes and smile to mesmerizing effect.
Such showmanship erased the usual awkwardness that arises during a set by a rapper or singer whose hits are collaborations with other rappers or singers who aren't there. Trey Songz was absent for "Bottoms Up" for example, and Rihanna for "Fly," but it didn't matter. Minaj's boatload of charisma had it covered.
(Her lyrics were rather advanced for some of the youngest members of the audience. Here's hoping the rapidity of her delivery kept them from making out the words).
Minaj raps on Spears' "Till the World Ends." But rather than bring out opener Minaj for that number, Spears showed taped footage of Minaj's part.
That's just odd, and not in a Minaj way.
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.