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Live review: Keyshia Cole's feisty turn at the Nokia Theatre

June 19, 2009 |  3:33 pm

Keyshia1 Keyshia Cole sprinkled a bit of theater into her hourlong set of recriminatory R&B Thursday night at the Nokia Theatre. On a stage set like an inner-city street scene -- complete with battered pay phone, bus-stop bench and a pair of burning trash-can fires -- Cole, or one of her dancers, occasionally would pretend to yell at someone over the phone or to hail the bus by crossing and then uncrossing her legs.

For Cole, this was just one more way to increase the verisimilitude in her music, which depicts the casual cruelties of love with unsparing detail. For the mostly female audience, though, the pantomime served as an invitation to participate.

Throughout the concert, women acted out the emotions in Cole's songs toward one another, with trusty girlfriends standing in for lazy lovers and no-good husbands. In thrillingly direct songs  such as "I Changed My Mind" and "I Should Have Cheated" -- both from 2005's "The Way It Is" -- it was sometimes easier to hear the fans singing along with Cole than to hear the performer herself. A remarkable turn of events, considering the high-wattage help the singer had. Nas was on hand to deliver his verse in "Oh-Oh, Yeah-Yea," a highlight from Cole's latest album, "A Different Me." Lil' Kim, wearing a yellow skirt not quite done justice by the term "form-fitting," showed up during "Let It Go," one of Cole's rare club records. Later,  rapper Too Short  and  singer Monica appeared; so did Sean "Diddy" Combs, though by the time he arrived, Cole had already sung their joint single, "Last Night."

Of course, Diddy is Diddy. Cole sang it again.

At one point during the show, a group of well-wishers that included Nas and Lil' Kim presented Cole with a plaque commemorating platinum sales of all three of her albums.

"Keyshia is living proof that if you have a dream, it can be done," said Geffen Records chief Ron Fair.

The singer accepted the award and then asked if she could get back to doing her job: performing.

As if to acknowledge the stock she puts in the art of songwriting, Cole brought along as openers Keri Hilson and The-Dream, two artists  making the transition from behind-the-scenes hit-makers to center-stage attractions.

Looking significantly thinner than he did only a few months ago at a record-release event at L.A.'s Area nightclub, The-Dream embodied another transformation,  from sensitive male to swaggering alpha dude.

"All that new [stuff] y'all hearing, they stole from me," he proclaimed early on, referring (somewhat accurately) to his increasingly influential work with the producer Tricky Stewart. Their hit collaborations include Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Mariah Carey's "Touch My Body."

At the Nokia, The-Dream turned in serviceable renditions of tunes from his two solo albums, including "Fast Car" and "My Love." He concluded the latter by removing his sunglasses and striking a one-knee "Will you marry me?" pose. Then he announced in slightly saltier language that he'd provided us with enough sappiness for the night.

Hilson fared better in person than she did on her recent debut, "In a Perfect World . . . ," which found her voice overpowered by A-list guests such as Ne-Yo and Kanye West. (Blame beginner's jitters for her desire to stock her album with sure-thing cameos.)

Backed by a booming five-piece band, she came across like a rawer, punkier version of the late Aaliyah, whose "Rock the Boat" she covered in a mid-set medley of tunes she said inspired her to become a songwriter.

Her message, honed in songs she's written for Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige, was similar to Cole's: "We always trying to make Mr. Wrong into Mr. Right," she said after "Energy," a song about running out of the strength required for that particular endeavor. Still, don't expect her to stop trying any time soon. Writers need subjects, you know.

--Mikael Wood

Photo: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times