Rihanna. Viejas Arena. 05.09.16
The following is the story of a 39-year-old man who went to a Rihanna concert by himself…
We were just coming up on The Merge when Ashim yanked the wheel left to stay on the 805, causing an iPhone to come flying out of the painted fingers holding it. The three women in the backseat had just finished Facetiming their children and were busy taking selfies and building out their Snapchat stories. They were probably in their late 30’s, a few glasses of wine deep, and high on the joy of what I can only assume was a rare girls night out. Pointing their cameras toward the front of the Honda Accord we were riding in, they begged us not to be shy when it came to participating in their video documentation of the evening. “Don’t worry, nobody will see it, we only have like eight followers!” Our Uber driver, who was also very new to Uber Pool, didn’t have to be told twice. He was full of jokes and tall tales about his time driving a cab in the Himalayas near his Indian hometown. He also nicknamed himself “Ashim the Dream” and his eyes spent more time on his precious cargo than on the road ahead. By the time my feet touched down near my old stomping grounds at SDSU, I was literally aching from laughing so hard, but I was also grateful to have arrived in one piece.
Four lines of people converged into one as everybody emptied their pockets before being wanded by security. My old apartment complex was visible on Hardy Avenue, but everything else was foreign. The Cox sign that lit the building when I saw the Beastie Boys there in ’98 had been replaced with Viejas, and there wasn’t a single recognizable face among the thousands of college students flooding into the arena. The whole environment made me feel older than I’ve felt in a long time, but as the women from my Uber adventure were commenting on the ridiculously high heels and impossibly short shorts surrounding us, it made me feel less alone. I would be lying if I said I felt entirely comfortable until I found my seat and got a couple beers in me though. It wasn’t until Travi$ Scott wrapped up his opening set that all my insecurities gave way to excitement. It had been eight years since my wife (girlfriend at the time) and I saw Rihanna on the Glow in the Dark Tour, and considering she has released most of her best material since then, I was really looking forward to the show. In fact, I didn’t realize how much I was looking forward to it until I found myself spontaneously joining in with the (mostly female) roar of the crowd when Rihanna finally appeared.
Rihanna made her entrance through one of the tunnels like a boxer coming out for the main event. Concealing her face under a heavy hood, she slowly found her way onto the platform opposite the stage. A spotlight followed her every move, making the white robe glow, while phone lights provided stars to pierce through the darkness around her. A single microphone waited on a stand as thunderous applause and ear-piercing screams filled the venue, and it served to silence the crowd in an instant. “All along it was a fever, a cold sweat hot-headed believer…” Having exposed nothing more than her unmistakable voice (and fingernails and unmistakable ass) to her audience, there was no doubt as to who was hiding under that robe. The entirety of “Stay” was performed from that position before she revealed her face. Having attended close to a thousand concerts, it’s not often I find myself in awe at being in close proximity to a musician, but seeing Rihanna standing in front of me, in the flesh, made me realize what a cult of personality she has built around herself. As she continued the performance with “Love the Way You Lie (Part II)”, she was part pop diva, part rock star, part sex symbol, all while never being anything but Rihanna. She is still so young, yet has already solidified herself among the very few people in history who everyone will know by a single name. It was very early in the show, but I was already convinced she had earned that status as well. Her voice is her defining talent, but her business acumen, stage presence, attitude, and beauty are what complete the package.
“Woo”, “Sex With Me”, and the first part of “Birthday Cake” were performed from an elevated, plexiglass bridge as Rihanna channeled her inner stripper from above the crowd. Various layers of clothing were removed as she strutted, grinded, and worked her way across the entire arena to the main stage. Once there, she was greeted by a group of jumpsuited backup dancers. The working girl routine came to a close with “Pour It Up”, by which time Rihanna was down to some kind of adult onesie and a pair of ass-less chaps. “Numb” included a choreographed dance number, before a full band appeared out of the stage (complete with backup singers), to assist with “Bitch Better Have My Money”. The large screen that hung above the stage flipped on its side at that point, before lowering down above the musicians to create some pretty cool visual effects. It made me realize what a small place Viejas was compared to arenas like Oracle and Pepsi. It holds around 12,000 people, but that is just because it is a deep venue. None of the seats are very far from the stage. After “Bitch”, there was short interlude for a wardrobe change. “Goodnight Gotham” played over the PA until she returned in a tan leather outfit and matching headdress to perform “Consideration”.
Rihanna covered so many vocal styles throughout the performance; from straight-up pop to hip hop to dancehall to heartfelt ballads, and never once did her voice ever sound less than perfect, or like anything but Rihanna. As the medley of songs she’s appeared on (TI’s “Live Your Life”, Jay-Z’s “Run This Town”, and Kanye’s “All of the Lights”) gave way to her first mega-hit, “Umbrella”, I got the feeling her heart wasn’t much into dwelling on the past, but she’s a professional and knows what her fans want to hear. That being said, somehow those older tracks blended perfectly with the newer material, no matter how different the styles may be. After apologizing for the delay (the show was supposed to happen back in February), Rihanna asked how many people in the audience owned Anti. Everyone cheered. Then she asked how many downloaded it illegally. Everyone cheered again. “You the realest, most downest fans on Earth, so Ima let it go, because I know you know this one!” “Desperado” was performed, and yes, the crowd knew it. After that, Rihanna disappeared under the stage. Male dancers/contortionists were left to entertain the masses until the mistress of ceremonies reappeared in a black hooded cape. It wasn’t until after “Man Down” and “Rude Boy” that the cape was shed, exposing a black, lacy, see-through dress perfectly crafted for all the twerking that was to come with “Work”. “I don’t want to see any of you dudes texting your baby mamas. I only want to see your phones if you puttin’ me on the ‘gram!”
The show continued on in that fashion; an ever changing spectacle of sight and sound. She performed her part of the “Take Care” Drake collaboration, as well as the Calvin Harris production, “We Found Love”. “Where Have You Been” turned the place into something like a rave coinciding with the end of the world. “Needed Me” found her in gangster mode, with sunglasses and a trench coat, before things turned psychedelic as her hitlist song transitioned immediately into her indie rock crossover, “Same Ol’ Mistakes”. San Diego was given the task of lighting up “this beautiful area” while her trench coat gave way to a leather bustier during “Diamonds”. Giant soap suds started running down the backdrop as the audience was led though a singalong version of “FourFiveSeconds” by a Rihanna who was also making physical contact with those in the front rows. “That sounded so good! I don’t want this show to end to be honest. You showed up to party, now you stuck with me for awhile!” The set closed out with two of the best tracks from Anti (or any Rihanna album for that matter), “Love on the Brain” and “Kiss It Better”. It really was an incredible performance from start to finish…
But then the house lights came on and I was once again reminded that I was an old dude at a young party, so I got out of there as quickly as I could. Evidently I wasn’t quick enough though. The Uber surge was already so high that it was going to cost $150 – $183 to get back to North County. The designated Uber pick up spot happened to be the parking lot of the building I used to live in, so I got lost in nostalgia a bit, but then I snapped out of it and started walking. I figured if I got out of the area, I would find a better rate. A half hour later I found myself at Effins on El Cajon Blvd. I lost many many nights to that particular bar in the late-90’s, so I figured it was as good a place as any for a nightcap. As I sat there, drinking a bourbon on the rocks and listening to people much younger than me talk about the concert, I couldn’t help but smile. Their night was just getting started and mine was over. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great night out. I felt young again while the concert was happening and I really enjoyed seeing one of my favorite pop stars, but I was also looking forward to getting in an Uber and heading back to Encinitas. So that’s what I did. My driver didn’t have a nickname this time around and there were no crazy women in the backseat. In fact, there was nothing noteworthy or exciting about the trip at all. And that’s exactly the way I wanted it. I was in bed and asleep before the echoes of Rihanna’s voice had left my head.
Love the Way You Lie (Part II)
Sex With Me
Pour It Up
Bitch Better Have My Money
Live Your Life / Run This Town / All of the Lights
We Found Love / How Deep Is Your Love
Where Have You Been
Same Ol’ Mistakes
Love on the Brain
Kiss It Better