At GM Place on Saturday, September 15
If cable reruns of Kung Fu have taught the world anything, it's that there are two kinds of people in this world: masters and grasshoppers. There was no mistaking who was who at GM Place on Saturday. As much as he has his faults hurling underage boys into audiences and dry-humping 14-year-olds Akon is indeed a master. By the time he was halfway through his encore, every person in the Garage was on their feet shaking their asses. No one was immune to his charms, and, yes, that included the frizzy-haired 50-something Far Side character a couple of rows down from me. Earlier in the night, she'd sat there staring grimly off into space while Akon had the entire audience including her 11-year-old riot-nrrrd of a daughter gang-chanting "I wanna fuck you". Proving that Akon can charm the plus-size mom jeans off his biggest haters, Mrs. Far Side spent the final 10 minutes of the show working it like something out of Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back".
But first, let's deal with the grasshopper. The kindest thing you can say about Rihanna is that she's shown some improvement since her last visit. For a start, she no longer seems tone-deaf. Still the Barbados-born knockout has plenty to learn about keeping an audience engaged. Banter-wise, she had little to offer other than "You're in for a treat this is my new single". As far as the visuals went, Rihanna won S&M points for thigh-high PVC boots and an ass-cheek-baring micro-mini that was part rubberware, part Glad garbage bag. Less captivating was her gaggle of rhythmically challenged backup dancers, who were evidently also-rans from the casting calls for Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, and Theatre Under the Stars' upcoming production of Cats. At least their ineptitude made you forget that their fearless leader couldn't outdance Heather Mills.
Musically, Rihanna live bears little resemblance to the over-processed artist we've heard on her platinum-shipping records. Bolstered by a back line that included a guitarist on leave from the pop-punk army, and a turntablist dressed by the stylist for AFI, the singer had moments where she actually rocked. "Let Me" played out as metal-tipped grunge-pop, while "Good Girl Gone Bad" stood up against anything that's ever been released on 604 Records.
Rihanna's definitely got the hits; a year ago she would have blown her bolt right off the top by starting with "Pon de Replay", which this night sounded like drum 'n' bass in a garbage can. The loudest screams predictably went up for "Umbrella". The techno thumper "SOS" aside, the loudest song was the distortion-powered "Shut Up and Drive". Featuring hard-candy hooks that Ashlee Simpson would trade her nose job for, the latter almost made you forget that Rihanna had all the charisma of Steven Wright. It didn't, however, compensate for her tuneless mangling of Bob Marley's "Is This Love", made more heinous by her suggestion that fans pay tribute to the song by hoisting their cellphones high.
Akon stripped things down to basics, which was somehow appropriate considering he ended the show naked from the waist up. As rock-solid as his backing drummer and bassist-keyboardist were, the second-most important player on-stage was DJ Benny D, a Red Bull fuelled hypeman who was part Flavor Flav, part Mohawked extra from The Road Warrior. It's a credit to Akon's boundless charisma that he wasn't upstaged, and a testament to his security as a performer that he happily shared the spotlight.
Strutting out in black pants and a blinged-out tracksuit jacket, the man born Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam had the audience in his pocket halfway through the reggae-strut bouncer "We Taking Over". What made him endlessly entertaining, besides his extended between-songs spiels on everything from evolution to how to get laid ("Just say Akon!"), was that the pumped-up singer is difficult to pin down. One second he was dabbling in sublime dub with "Ghetto", the next he was unleashing bass-jacked R&B with the delicately re-titled "I Wanna Fuck You". What remained constant was that Akon was never less than watchable, whether he was patrolling the stage like a sexed-up panther or conducting his encore from the stands, which is how he managed to get the Far Side mom (along with everyone else in the joint) on her feet.
As Akon led 7,000 or so deliriously dancing Vancouverites through the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony jam "I Tried", those sitting near the mixing board might have noticed Rihanna standing there in a cloak, taking it all in. It was the sight of a lowly grasshopper giving a certified master her undivided attention.