Big box concerts at Madison Square Garden are always a lot of fun.  Tonight my friends and I met up at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ on 33rd Street for a drink or two before Rihanna‘s Last Girl On Earth Tour, featuring Ke$ha.  I like Rihanna, but this concert was not high on my list to attend; however, I was interested to see how the Barbadian beauty stacked up in the arena setting compared to her contemporaries like Beyonce, Madonna, Alicia Keys and Lady Gaga — all of whom have played, and I’ve seen at the Garden.  It’s been the tour no one is talking about, and apparently it’s her first headlining tour.  She’s canceled a number of shows due to lagging ticket sales, so she must be thrilled to be in New York City for her sold out show here.

We got to the show a song or two into pop-tart Ke$ha‘s set.  She was singing a song called “Party at a Rich Dude’s House.”  Right off the bat I expected a train wreck, but was surprised to see that she could hold her own in a venue like the Garden.  Her songs are guilty pleasures, like the next song she sang which she said was about “old guys.”  I’m sure she’s talking about me.  “D-I-N-O-S-A- UR a Dinosaur!” Great.  Thanks, Ke$h.  So stupid.  But her “Animal” was really good, one of those songs that starts slow, kicks in and infectiously makes you sing and dance.  Guilty!  I also love her new single, “Take It Off,” which of course featured her backup dancers shirtless.   She ended her set with her big hits, “Your Love Is My Drug” and “Tik Tok.”  For the former, I crushed on Ke$ha after she she signed off with her hilarious song-ending shout out, “I love your beard.”

It’s after 9:30 and the crowd is getting a little impatient.  Girl, it’s a school night!  The arena finally goes dark and Rihanna is pushed out to center stage wearing a lit-up red dress singing her “comeback” torch song, “Russian Roulette.”  At the end of the song, she begs “so just pull the trigger.”  With a bang, the red dress bleeds to darkness.  To pick up the pace, she quickly donned a pair of Minnie Mouse ears glued to a helmet and perched herself on the “big gun” of her pink tank for “Hard.”  Cute, but Cher’s been doing that since the ’80s on battleships.  Hmmm, a tank or the USS Missouri?  I think we know who would say size matters.  I am impressed with how many hits Rihanna has racked up since she hit scene in 2005 with “Pon de Replay,” starting with her next number, “Shut Up And Drive.”  This is a great song!  It made me miss the Good Girl Gone Bad starlet who on her recent album has become the Rated R dark girl.  Her new music is really good, just a little dark, that’s all.  Case in point: “Fire Bomb” is great, as is “Rude Boy,” “Stupid in Love,” and “Te Amo,” which is a huge hit in Europe, fueled by a video of her mashing with a chick.

I suppose I am an old school Rihanna fan.  “Hate That I Love You” is one of her best collaborations, and it would have been amazing had Ne-Yo made an appearance, but he didn’t.  “Disturbia” brought back the summer of 2008 and her dancers appeared in oversized robot-monster costumes.  Creepy.  She also played all the hits that allow her to sing her signature “eh, eh, ehs” like “Rehab” and “Run This Town.”  I was surprised how well Rihanna sounds live.  I really wanted to believe she was singing and not allowing a track to save her.  I think her best moments was when she slowed things down, eliminated props, pyrotechnics, tanks and just sang.  “Unfaithful” and especially “Take a Bow” were flawless.

The sold out Garden went into mild frenzies during “Don’t Stop the Music,” “Breakin’ Dishes” and 2006 song of the summer, “SOS.”  Classic Rihanna and the girl we all miss and love.  No big surprises during this concert, no Eminem appearance, but I was thrilled to see her cover Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life.”  She even got behind the percussion (a la Ms. Escovedo) and banged her drums.  Good girl gone right!  I found it funny how all the little twink girls around me had no clue what she was singing, let alone appreciate the homage to one of my idols of my youth.  I was so in love with Sheila E. back in the day, records, posters and photos I had purchased at Spencer Gifts at Metro North Mall all over my bedroom walls.  “She was the female version of Prince,” we used to say.  What does that mean?  Prince is the female version of Prince.  I think I was just secretly in love with Prince, channeled through Sheila, which was more socially acceptable in the Midwest.

But I digress.  Back to the girl at hand.  What Rihanna concert would be complete without her signature song, the summer song of 2007 and arguably RiRi’s biggest hit, the once ubiquitous “Umbrella.”  She’s going to be singing this song for the rest of her life.  But it’s a classic.  I think Rihanna is a classic too.  I just hope she puts her personal drama behind her, learns and grows from it, and finds peace, happiness and records music that forces us to the dancefloor.  Please don’t stop the music, Ri.

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