Like most native New Yorkers, Alicia Keys always seems to go the extra mile when taking the stage in her hometown — a trait that she really brought to the fore at this pull-out-the-stops gig. And while the performance wasn’t perfect — the pacing and song selection both needed a bit of tweaking — Keys deserves extra credit for taking a leap of faith by enlisting the help of some pals who could’ve outshined her in terms of theoretical star power.
The guests in question? Jay-Z and Beyonce, who took turns acting as foils for Keys, but never threatened to steal the show. Jay’s appearance during a feisty “Empire State of Mind” was almost a given, since the two recorded the song together. Still, the way Keys took control of the tune on this occasion was something of a surprise — as was the mere onstage appearance of Beyonce, who managed to subsume her divadom for a nicely measured duet on “Put It in a Love Song.”
But while Keys seemed intent on providing spectacle as well as substance at this show — she emerged at the onset to sing “Caged Bird” in (what else?) an oversized gilded cage — she proved most arresting when she simply concentrated on her ample gift for songcraft. That was borne out most clearly when she planted herself at the piano for stark versions of pieces like “Diary” and “Like You’ll Never See Me Again,” both of which achieved the intended effect of bringing a coffeehouse hush to the packed arena.
When the singer went into obligatory overdrive, she lost some of the vulnerability that separates her from the current crop of melisma-driven songstresses. She’s not blessed with the greatest natural rhythm, so when she tried to mix it up with her backing dancers — or when she attempted to re-invent songs like “Fallin'” as club anthems — she stumbled more often than she hit her stride.
That bigger-is-better approach may suit some performers, but Keys is much better served by a whisper than by a scream — and like those old E.F. Hutton ads, when she used the former approach on this evening, people most certainly listened.
Keys’ tour will make a stop at L.A.’s Staples Center on April 6.