Lady Gaga at Toyota Center, 7/16/2014

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Lady Gaga, Lady Nightshade, Crayon Pop Toyota Center July 16, 2014

For a good handful of years there, there was no question who reigned as pop music's auteur supreme. Arriving as if from some stranger, sillier and downright gayer dimension than our own, a chameleonic diva calling herself Lady Gaga took the charts by storm by bidding the planet to "Just Dance," and dance we did.

She hatched from an egg at the Grammys. She wore a dress made of meat. And her music went into heavy rotation at discos and shopping malls the world over. A new pop icon -- the talented, mutant spawn of Michael Jackson and Madonna -- seemed to be emerging, and it was exciting breath of fresh, Rihanna-free air.

That was then. A couple of middling albums and a few world mega-tours later, and Gaga seems to have been bumped down the pop pecking order a notch or three, teetering on the brink of becoming old hat. While no one doubts her talent for singles and spectacle, could yet another big arena tour from Mama Monster really still compete with Miley's bizarre Bangerz staging, or Beyonce's mechanized perfection? Worse yet, might she actually be committing the unforgivable sin of trying too hard? Reviews (and predictions) have been mixed.

A sellout crowd filled Toyota Center on Wednesday night to find out the truth for themselves. After gamely received opening sets by K-Pop troupe Crayon Pop and synth-and-sequencer custodian Lady Starlight, the mainstream's proudest weirdo ascended at last from a cloud of smoke to reassure fans that she hasn't lost a step.

If her opening suite of tunes from the hard-to-love ARTPOP album didn't quite get folks singing and dancing along right off the bat, Gaga certainly gave her audience a lot of cool stuff to look at. Clad in expectedly odd, fuzzy wings, the songstress Clydesdale-walked confidently across the multiple catwalks of her Fortress of Solitude stage set, backed by a five-piece band and at least a dozen dancers. As camera phones lit up the arena from the floor to the rafters, there was little question that Lady Gaga's formidable aura of star power remains largely undiminished.

It took the welcome eruption of her debut smash "Just Dance" to really put the Toyota Center in her pocket, however. After following it up with a triple stack of early hits "Poker Face," "Telephone" and "Paparazzi," Gaga could have finished the night off with a slate of acoustic Creed covers and still left Houston a hero to her legion of enthusiastic, cosplaying fans.

As she worked through the second-half mixture of new and old tunes, the pop star worked hard to make those fans a part of the show. All night, her stage banter was packed full of positive affirmations encouraging audience members to be themselves at all times and embrace one another as kindred souls. Eschewing the untouchable-icon act that has served her forebears (and some contemporaries) so well, Lady Gaga seemed to long to be just one face in the fun, freakish crowd, bringing outrageously dressed fans up onstage to boogie beside her and even reading a touching letter from a couple of locals thanking her for her inspiring individuality.

As gifts of clothing and plushies rained down on Gaga at every opportunity, one couldn't escape the idea that the songstress is striving to build a laser-studded, traveling community of confetti-inclined oddballs -- something like an arch-pop version of a Grateful Dead tour. She doesn't appear to be trying to conquer the world so much as create a friendlier, freakier alternative world for her fans to inhabit, if only for one night at a time.

Story continues on the next page.

Maybe that's the only kind of world in which Lady Gaga feels truly comfortable. Surrounded by many thousands of her closest strangers, she felt comfortable enough to let it all hang out literally when she indulged in one of her many costume changes right there in the middle of the stage, peeling off the wig and bustier in front of everybody.

As she tore through "Bad Romance" and "Applause" with the confetti cannon on full blast, it was hard to imagine that the Lady is losing her touch. It felt more like she was happily retreating into the many arenas packed full of adoring crowds ready to support her every move. Yes, she's finding it difficult to top her monster debut. So what? Hard to hear much criticism over all that screaming and cheering.

Personal Bias: There is only one Madonna.

The Crowd: Large and colorful.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Work, bitch! Work! We love youuu!"

Random Notebook Dump: There were a number of hits that would have been far more ecstatically received that most of the ARTPOP stuff. But it's hard to criticize a show for what it wasn't.


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