It’s safe to say that whoever came up with the concept of the Verizon Ladies First Tour was counting their money before the plans were even officially announced. The bill is a dream lineup of almost unquestionably the top three female names in urban music: Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Missy Elliott. But somewhere on the road Beyonce and Keys must have accidentally mixed up their drinks; in erratic, misguided sets, they traded their public personas, with Keys trying to play the sexy vixen and Beyonce going for credibility. That leaves opener Elliott to shore up the slack, which perhaps she does on some dates. Not at the Arrowhead Pond, though, where her set felt all but phoned in.
Elliott’s 40-minute set opened with a search for the “real” Missy Elliott, her dancers onstage replicating her style before she emerged from a coffinlike platform moments later. It was an apt metaphor for the rest of her set, which found her struggling to maintain a foothold on her material and the audience. She’s an agile performer: Her dance moves are concise and complex, and she rapid-fires her sing-song raps while running through the audience. But songs from last year’s “This Is Not a Test” (Elektra) were met with a lukewarm response, while older hits “Gossip Folks,” “Work It” and even the once-ubiquitous “Get Ur Freak On” surprisingly didn’t fare much better. Even a meticulously choreographed stage show couldn’t cure Elliott’s woes; by the end of the set, with a truncated tribute to fallen hip-hop stars (including Big Pun, Aaliyahand Jam Master Jay alongside Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.) it seemed like she had all but given up.
Not Keys, who emerged, headstrong, at a podium at the back of the rearranged stage. Confidently, she began to dance — an odd move for Keys, who’s better known for sitting at a piano than strutting her stuff. Clad in a white bustier and calf-clenching boots, it was clear that she wants to shed her good-girl image, but, invariably, it’s where she’s most comfortable.
Her set, in fact, didn’t pick up steam until Keys dropped the sexy stuff and sat down at the keys. Without her band, her choreography, and the light-show accoutrements of a standard arena set, Keys demonstrated why her “Songs in A Minor” and “The Diary of Alicia Keys” (both J Records) have become requisite fare for discerning soul listeners. She reaches above pedestrian lyrics like “I feel such a connection/even when you are far away” with a voice that is effortlessly resonant. By the time she ended her set, with current hit “You Don’t Know My Name,” she had covered up her sexy outfit and moved to the front of the stage, where she ably — nearly effortlessly — led her band without having to resort to an overblown dance number to wow the crowd.
Of course, Beyonce — who made her name as one-third of the girl group Destiny’s Child — is known more for her body than her singing, and started her set by enunciating that point by being walked, royalty style, onto the stage. In true diva tradition, the costume changes started almost immediately, running from stripper chic to booty cute for the fast numbers, and prom-dress elegance for the ballads.
When Beyonce’s leading dance steps — through “Baby Boy,” through “Naughty Girl,” through a Destiny’s Child medley — she does it commandingly and skillfully, stomping over steps and gliding down slides while making sure to focus, at least once a song, on every section of the arena. The hit singles from last year’s “Dangerously in Love” (Columbia) are hits for a reason: They bump with beats that are insatiably catchy, have singalong choruses that are easy to pick up, and lay the groundwork for butt-bumping of the highest caliber.
There’s also a reason that Beyonce’s never had a hit ballad: Her voice just isn’t that extraordinary. And — after Keys’ piercing songs — singing not one, not two, but three slow songs in a row just didn’t work in Beyonce’s favor. With more solid material, she could put together an hour or so of fun; with just “Dangerously in Love” to work with, she stretched her show to near-precarious limits.