LOWELL, Massachusetts — Ja Rule and Eve kicked off a three-week tour Wednesday with tight, stripped-down sets and lots of participation from the crowd of 6,300 at the Tsongas Arena.
Just the mere mention of Ja Rule drew thunderous cheers. When he finally appeared at 10:40 p.m. to pace from one end of the stage to the other and cry "Let me hear y'all!" in his gravelly howl, the response was deafening.
Sporting jeans, a red sports cap and a dark pullover with glittering dog tag, the Murder Inc. rhyme slinger used the crowd's energy to his advantage across his 45-minute set. Apart from an onstage posse that brandished poster ads for his new album, Ja's sole backup was a DJ whose choppy stop-and-start fades in "Livin' It Up" and "Put It on Me" let fans fill the spaces with call-and-response vocals.
Ja Rule also cued fans to each side of the arena to add a "you" and "we" to the lighters-in-the-air lament "I Cry," and gave shout-outs to deceased comrades Eazy-E, Aaliyah, the Notorious B.I.G., Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Tupac Shakur.
Then Ja baited the ladies. Saying "I will do this record one way and one way only," the Queens-bred rapper peeled off his shirt to expose his tattooed upper torso and perform "I'm Real," with the crowd chiming in on Jennifer Lopez's parts.
Female vocals, such as Ashanti's in "Always on Time," liberally graced backing tracks during Ja's set, but the rapper assumed the Bobby Brown role in "Thug Lovin' " himself. He then paused to spin in place and spray fans from a water bottle as a sendoff. Balloons floated down as he left the stage.
Sporting high-heeled leather boots to the knees of her tight jeans, Eve delivered "Love Is Blind," her song against domestic violence, early in a 25-minute set that was weighted toward recent hits.
The Philly MC reached for danceable fare with the bright, Latin-peppered "Who's That Girl?," "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" (with a cheerleading, freestyle rap over the recorded chorus), the drag-step feel of the Grammy-nominated "Satisfaction," and "Gangsta Lovin', " with its own stop-and-start DJ rhythms.
Charli Baltimore was an unexplained no-show on the tour's opening date. But Boston-raised rapper and Eminem nemesis Benzino helped fill the void before the late-arriving marquee acts (Eve started at 9:45 p.m., long past the 8 p.m. show time). He tried his own brand of crowd participation, inviting a large group of female fans onstage to shake to his song "Boottee."
"The show got me pumped up," said Ashley Seaborne, 17, of Nashua, New Hampshire, one of many fans seeing their first concert. "I thought I'd sit down, but it got me up in the air and dancing."
Kazel Cordero, 18, of Lowell, agreed. "All the quality was good, the performances, the energy."
But 12-year-old Mohamed Sesay, also of Lowell, said he would have been happier at home watching MTV. "More songs," he said, "and the food's free."
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.