In THE film clip that introduced Alicia Keys' concert at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Sunday, a fiery gospel choir raised the church roof and a young Alicia stepped from her pew and prepared to make her way in the world. The preacher, played by Cedric the Entertainer, sent her forth, with some mysterious advice about seeking "the Star Maker."
Like the concert's production numbers, this kind of extra baggage is just a distraction from Keys' unique essence. The segments when she simply sang and played piano, whether alone or with her band behind her, were the real heart of the concert, both musically and emotionally.
But in mainstream pop, fans expect a show with a capital S, and even having the second-biggest album of the year, as Keys does with "As I Am," apparently doesn't give you a pass.
The staging and choreography were fairly modest and restrained by contemporary standards, and some of the more active sections, especially the energetic take on Baby Cham's "Ghetto Story," had some charm. Overall, though, Keys' participation seemed dutiful, if not quite mechanical.
Not that she was a stick-in-the-mud. Being a diva (even if a sensitive, caring form of diva), she's not averse to the effects of a grand scale and a little showiness. And by presenting herself as an idealized surrogate for everyone who's chased a dream or been dumped by a lover, she fulfilled that classic diva role. She might have a goddess-like beauty and a privileged life, but the connection between singer and listener is grounded in shared experience.
Keys, who was also scheduled to play Staples Center on Monday, alluded to that dynamic early in the show when she spoke about her desire to write "meaningful" music. (And if there's a little arrogance in her separating herself from other, presumably less meaningful artists, well, that's a diva thing too.)
Keys is a fundamentally different breed from contemporary R&B;'s virtuosic singers and athletic, all-around entertainers. More attuned to analog textures and resonance than digital gratification, she's an old-fashioned singer-songwriter out to craft a personal, organic sort of statement, and every time the doors at the back of the stage slid open Sunday and her grand piano emerged in a cloud of stage fog, you knew a moment was coming.
The bluesy "How Come You Don't Call Me," the intense "Prelude to a Kiss" (its "sometimes we all need an angel" sentiment linked to a plea for aid to the needy in Africa), the urgent "Like You'll Never See Me Again" and "Diary" (a stormy duet with backup singer Jermaine Paul) combined soulful intimacy and arena-size force.
"Fallin' " showcased a dramatic shade of blues, and her ubiquitous recent hit "No One" had a trace of Bob Marley in its blend of idealism and melancholy. Together, these formed a career-spanning panorama that reminded everyone why she's one of the most consistently popular and acclaimed artists of this decade.
These peaks also made the show's standard routines seem all the more anonymous. If Keys really wants to do something special, she should design a show around that core material and take it to smaller rooms where it could have a nuanced sound and full effect. Now that would be meaningful.
Before Keys took over the evening, rising star Ne-Yo had rocked the house pretty impressively in his second-billed spot. The singer-writer-producer, who won a Grammy for best R&B; album this year, didn't play it low-key, hitting the stage with a flashy, white-suited nine-piece band and a few showgirl dancers (no surprise that he's from Las Vegas).
Between the opener, the Euro-disco-flavored new single "Closer," and the finale of his big hit "Because of You," he flashed considerable charm, some sharp dance moves and a supple, feathery voice.