Rihanna certainly wasn’t the only girl in Baltimore, let alone the world, Saturday night.
Not only was the 13,500-seat First Mariner Arena nearly full for the debut of her “Loud” tour, disproving rumors that tickets weren’t moving. But the stage itself was crowded with eight dancers and seven musicians, who often joined the Barbadian sex bomb for elaborately choreographed routines. Rihanna was also accompanied by her own disembodied voice, which kept the music going when she was too busy dancing to sing — or wasn’t onstage at all.
From the opening “Only Girl (in the World)” to the concluding “Umbrella,” the show ran 105 minutes. (Less if you don’t count the diva-like delay Rihanna inflicted before returning for two encores.) The action seldom flagged, and the set itself was a marvel of activity: moving sidewalks, rising and lowering platforms, two wings that reached toward the crowd, and more than a dozen video screens, including four round, movable ones that suggested giant makeup mirrors.
The singer’s strategy was to render viewers agog with revealing outfits, lascivious moves, frequent costume changes, and extravagant stage business — the singer in chains for “S&M,” an onstage car and hoofers in crash-test-dummy outfits for “Shut Up and Drive” — as well as direct engagement with the audience. When “Breakin’ Dishes” segued into a bit of Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life,” Rihanna raced to the other end of the hall for a quick drum solo on an elevated platform. She also pulled a female fan on stage for a brief makeout session — simulated, but provocatively horizontal.
Musically, however, the concert sometimes ran low on juice. After an hour or so, the sameness of Rihanna’s dance-rap-synth-pop material became obvious, and the crowd began to thin. Particularly dreary was what might be termed the show’s Whitney Houston interlude, in which Rihanna donned a yellow gown — floor length, but slit almost to the waist — to sing such anguished power ballads as “Hate That I Love You” and “California King Bed.”
“Lady Killer” Cee Lo Green, who preceded Rihanna, had only three video screens and a smaller onstage entourage: two dancers and a DJ. The rotund singer, who entered in a white T-shirt and a spangly black jacket, performed for 40 minutes, often upstaged by the soft-core images of strippers and simulated fellatio behind him. Most of the crowd reacted to only his last two songs, which were (of course) “Crazy” and “Fuck You.”
Opener J.Cole promised to “set this bitch on fire” during a 20-minute set that ended with his first single, “Who Dat.” Yet little heat was generated, in part because Cole rapped over languid jazz-funk keyboards, but also because his vocals were battered by the arena’s harsh echo.
Rihanna also suffered from the venue’s acoustics, but it mattered less, since her act was as much motion as sound. When she rushed up one aisle and down the other during “Don’t Stop the Music,” the key words weren’t “the music,” but “don’t stop.”