Saturday, March 8, 2008

Alicia Keys needs a chance to soar

Alicia Keys at the Birmingham NIA
All about the voice: Alicia Keys is not a natural booty-shaker

Helen Brown reviews Alicia Keys at the Birmingham NIA

"I don't know if I feel comfortable…" says Alicia Keys as her three backing singers coax the demure, 26 year-old star into shaking a little booty with them. As they shimmy in their tight, short, silver dresses, the modestly trousered Alicia giggles, rolls her hips and humours them with a few uncommitted BeyoncĂ©-lite moves.

She clearly doesn't enjoy shifting her (or our) focus from her voice to her pelvis and, as the silver trio recede into the dry ice she reiterates:

"That just didn't feel comfortable. It's OK for a 'show'," she says, flicking a little disdain into the word, "but I wanna do something special."

And this is what's wrong with the all-new Alicia Keys tour. It's a show that wants to have its cake and rise above it.

A look at the punters goes some way to explaining why: there are the thirty- to fortysomethings who fell for the street-smart piano ballads of Songs in A Minor back in 2001, and were pleased to have their taste validated when Bob Dylan name-checked Keys on his last album.

And then there are the teenagers in flashing bunny ears who think the current, anthemic single No One is a "bangin toon".

So the audience is, to some extent, divided. And the star is in a transitional career phase, figuring out how much fun and funk to throw into her serious, Roberta Flack-inspired soul. The former prodigy looks like she wants to relax into her talent, but is still wary of frivolity.

The effect on the show of these two factors feels, to borrow Keys's word, uncomfortable.

Her piano slides on and off stage as her "special" moments are segued into the dance routines that are part of the modern, American arena-sized show. Some of Keys's most beautiful songs - A Woman's Worth, Butterflies, even Fallin' - are clipped to suit ringtone-length attention spans.

This sort of thing is fine for the Spice Girls. But with a musician who can really soar, it's frustrating.

Despite the cancellation of earlier dates because of laryngitis, Keys's soulful, slightly Michael Jacksonesque voice sounded on good form. But it was seldom given the opportunity to fly freely as the songs were ticked off and the costumes changed.

Despite its silly lyrics ("Even when I'm a mess/ I still put on my vest/ With an 'S' on my chest") Superwoman emerged as one of the few movingly heroic moments of the night - stripped down and simple.

And as the electro-arpeggios of No One brought the evening to a suddenly euphoric close, those bunny ears flashed away. But I'd have preferred to hear half the songs, played all the way through. Just Keys and her piano, feeling comfortable.

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