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Keri Hilson and Ne-Yo Live
San Manuel Casino, Ontario, CA
July 2nd, 2009

While families celebrated the 4th of July weekend, R&B superstar, Ne-Yo looked for “Miss Independent” amongst the crowd of screaming girls at the San Manuel Casino. However, the Grammy-award winner did not come alone. Fellow R&B artist, Keri Hilson opened the night with enough energy and noise to make the ground literally rumble beneath her. It felt like tiny earthquakes when the bass kicked in and shook up the entire floor throughout the night but it only made the concert experience all the more entertaining and interesting.

First of all, Miss Hilson chose to pay tribute to some of her favorite female artists by singing a melody of songs by SWV, TLC, and Aaliyah. She sang so well and the way that she projected her voice was impressive to say the least. It felt like a night club as the dining chairs classed up the conference hall and gave room for the ladies to groove out to each jam. The singer/songwriter got her big break singing alongside Timberland on the track, “The Way I Are,” but just like Ne-Yo, Hilson penned songs for popular artists before stepping into the spotlight as a performer. Being multi-talented seems to be the only way to go these days, but Hilson appeared to be a natural on that stage. The recent BET award recipient pumped up the crowd with her performance to the track, “Get Your Money Up.” Also, her back-up dancers were all on point and worked the stage just as much as Hilson herself. For instance, the dance routine in the video for “Turnin’ Me On,” looked stunning in person and it was the perfect number to close out her incredibly energetic set.

A mini-break summoned the 21+ only crowd to the bar area, but officers killed the buzz after warning my party as well as others that cameras were going to be confiscated if they were ever used again. This seemed like a ridiculous threat- so many cameras and recording devices were seen throughout the night during the concert. Regardless of the so-called “strict” security, the headliner trumped the hassling venue workers.

Ne-Yo opened the night with his hit song, “Because of You,” and the crowd immediately stood up out of their seats and it looked like everybody was having a good time. I was surrounded by probably the most diverse group of people I could ask for at a concert. First of all, I adjusted my eyes to see tatted-out mo-hawk sporting rockers to the left of me. Then, an old couple who decided to leave during the middle of the show was seated to the right of me. In the row in front of me, an overly affectionate Asian couple, who hilariously danced to the same groove regardless of the song tempo. Last but not least, a semi-excited to be there girlfriend and her restless boyfriend who choose to sit out some songs graced my presence in the seats right in front of me.

Even with all that happening off stage, Ne-Yo kept the audience- especially the females’ attention- because he acknowledged all the single ladies and serenaded the lucky front-row like a true pop star. The dreamy singer had all the confidence in the world and it was such a treat to hear him effortlessly pour his heart out into each song. Not to mention the tremendous band who had showmanship themselves. For example, one of the musicians playing a brass instrument got so into his solo that he laid on the ground and kept playing like a bonafide rock star. It was a special moment, and it seemed like all his songs had a special live element that could not be heard on any record or radio spin. For instance, Ne-Yo decided to add a Latin-jazz element to the song, “Do You.” Soon enough, the Asian couple was doing the salsa dance. While the pair had a blast, Ne-Yo did not waste any time acknowledging his idol, Michael Jackson by performing one of his songs. Coming off a recent tribute special edition of the BET Awards, the R&B star danced like the King of Pop. However, the crooner drew the most similarities to the pop icon for the “Closer” music video. With all due respect, MJ lives on through Ne-Yo and so many more that came after him.

Speaking of “Closer,” the live performance was electric and Ne-Yo set it off with that one. The talented dancers held their own on stage and the ladies showed off pure athleticism with their insane flexibility. They were just as mesmerizing as the man himself. While everything that moved on stage was a visual feast, the ear drums were definitely catered to as well. Ne-Yo brought back classic hits like, “So Sick,” “Can We Chill,” and “Sexy Love.” However, one stand-out moment of the night was when he sang a medley of songs that he produced for other artists such as “Let Me Love You” by Mario, “Take a Bow” by Rihanna and “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce. Ne-Yo cracked a joke about the confused looks on some of the audience member’s faces as he started singing the Mario hit song.

Another fun moment took place when he brought it back to church and surprised the crowd with his Billboard-topping single, “Miss Independent” using a Southern Baptist choir-type introduction. It hyped up the crowd just right and Ne-Yo showed off his smooth dance moves. However, he ditched this trademark suits and wore something a little bit more casual. It did not take a way the fact that he was extremely charming and a great heart-felt singer.

Occasionally, Ne-Yo had VH1 Storyteller’s moments and explained a little bit about each song before singing it. Those moments in general really make the show more intimate and introspective without taking away from the performance itself. For instance, Ne-Yo shared the best piece of advice that his mother gave him: Don’t ever, ever, EVER go to bed mad. Once he said the word, “mad,” the girls automatically screamed and he went right into his hit ballad, “Mad.” The audience swayed to the beat like they were in some type of romantic lullaby. Speaking of which, his entire song catalog has to deal with the ups and downs of relationships. The highs of it were represented through the song, “Stop this World,” and “Lie to Me” explained the lows. In addition, the single ladies were not to be left out once again because in the New Kids on the Block comeback hit, “Single,” Ne-Yo sang his version that appears on his current album, “Year of the Gentleman.” It gave every lady dressed in full-on club gear the opportunity to hold their drinks up high and enjoy their bliss freedom as a happy group of divas.

The night was pure bliss and it was all thanks to a very talented young man who possessed a universal appeal that connected with so many people. His talent- undeniable and at an Indian casino, it was hardly a gamble but rather a priceless pleasure to see Ne-Yo and Keri Hilson live in such an unorthodox venue.

–Gail Navarro