“It’s been a while,” she sang and declared, “I’m not who I was before.” The apparently brand new Alicia Keys, an immaculate American songstress and general going concern, gave a picture-perfect performance at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.
Her latest album, Girl on Fire, is her first LP in three years and a product born of collaborations, with Frank Ocean, John Legend, Maxwell, Bruno Mars, Nicki Minaj, Dr. Dre and Babyface on board in various capacities.
None of those illustrious pop figures accompany the alpha-gal hit-maker on tour however. The stage, all in black and minimally adorned, was hers and hers alone, aside from a few choreographed dance situations and a four-piece band that hovered in the back (the crisp production being much less showy than the ones offered by the divas Gaga, Madonna or even Rihanna).
Keys smiled and uplifted, sang her firm and catchy R&B, and sometimes played a piano, an instrument upon which her classically-trained chops were not tested severely at all, either on an upright model or a grand.
She closed the main set with the cathartic, anthemic avowal, “This girl is on fire,” literally and figuratively beating her own drums as she roared. The crowd rose, but smoke detectors were not set off and fire marshals were not concerned.
Keys sparkled decisively and professionally, but she lacks a soulful charisma or unique persona to genuinely ignite an audience. She gets by fine, thank you very much, on earnest songcraft and likable lyrical platitudes. She may have told us she was different than before, but Keys appeared to be who we thought she was. And that act, it seems, is not getting old.
The Hits: Tears Always Win, off Girl on Fire, was delivered in a classic gospel-based R&B style – one could imagine Gladys Knight with Pips included (the piano-bound Keys was helped by three back-up singers). Keys’ shiny new-look bob was covered with a fedora, perhaps a tip of the hat to Michael Jackson, whose music warmed the crowd before the main show began. On the bluesy Fallin’, Keys opened her pipes wide, and the sultry ballad ended in an ecstatic moment of rock-fusion razzle-dazzle.
The Misses: It is absolutely unfair to compare Keys to Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston, but listening to If I Ain’t Got You, one could only think of Keys as an inferior substitute when it comes to soulful pleading.
The Crowd: A pretty, nicely mannered bunch who didn’t overcrowd the washrooms, beer stands or BlackBerry kiosk. When they were asked by the star singer to flash their cellphones during 2007’s feel-good hit No One, they dutifully obliged, producing something like a sea of fireflies.
Overheard: “I got,” one woman said to another after the satisfying performance, “the injection I needed.” No, Dr. Feelgood was not on call, but Keys absolutely was. Her bright, empowered vibe was something of a B-12 shot for the soul.
In a Word: “Key-riffic,” for fans of power-suited pop – the singer/global creative director for BlackBerry actually wore clingy leotards and, for the Empire State of Mind encore, a glimmering gown – and easily digestible R&B.
Alicia Keys plays Montreal’s Bell Centre, April 3.