Saturday, March 8, 2008

Alicia Keys

The show opened with a short film showing the young Alicia Keys at church being commanded by her preacher to go unto the world and sing. The tone was semi-comic, but the message was overweening: rejoice, for a divine talent has been sent among us.

My heart sank further as the soul singer appeared sitting behind a grand piano playing a splashy keyboard routine. The 27-year-old rarely misses an opportunity to remind us that she's a classically trained pianist, as if we should fall to our knees and marvel at her ability to string a few chords together. It's pop's equivalent of the cultural cringe.

The air of smugness never entirely disappeared - Keys had a habit of chuckling to herself while making pointless remarks such as, "No one can take me away from my piano" - but her show, contrary to initial expectations, turned out to be terrifically entertaining.

Leaping from the piano to join a troupe of dancers, she opened with "Ghetto Story", a pounding R&B number about her hardscrabble upbringing in Hell's Kitchen in New York. The song's steeliness suggested that whatever hand God might have had in her success, strength of will has certainly played a part.

The theme of the evening was her life story, as outlined in her latest album As I Am , which has confirmed her status as one of the US's biggest stars by selling more than 3m copies.

Outbreaks of schmaltz periodically threatened the set, such as when pictures of plucky Africans illustrated a piano-led weepy about survival. Yet even her mushiest songs were purposeful, propelled by an inner drive that kept the schmaltz under control.

Her singing was spectacular. There was no hint of the laryngitis that forced her to cancel the opening dates of her tour in the supple jazzy phrasings of "You Don't Know My Name" or the power chords of "Superwoman". A series of songs performed alone at the piano underlined the range of her vocals, which rang out note-perfect within an arena holding some 20,000 people. Other tracks had deft hints of jazz and rock amid references to classic soul and R&B. My misgivings about Keys' self-regard were overtaken by admiration for her flair.

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