Alicia Keys Duets With Maxwell, Method Man in Brooklyn: Concert Review
The "Girl on Fire" singer spreads her message of self-empowerment to a packed house at Jay-Z's Barclays Center.
Attending an Alicia Keys concert in her native New York City is a feel-good, feel-the-love affair: The singer's diverse and devoted fan base -- dancing in their seats and waving cell phones in the air and shouting, "WE LOVE YOU, ALICIA!!!" -- radiates good vibes from the VIP area to the nosebleed section. Keys, performing to a packed house at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on Friday, has transformed over the years from a piano-playing R&B phenom to a wise and emotionally honest pop star spreading a message of self-empowerment, personal growth and finding-yourself.
At two hours long, Keys' Set the World on Fire Tour runs the gamut of greatest hits like the reggae-tinged crowd-pleaser "No One" to moodier ballads like "Secrets" to new material from her fifth studio album, Girl on Fire. That includes the hit song of the same name and, one of her favorites, the softer follow-up single "Brand New Me," which is as undeniably inspiring as it is a rarity of straightforward realness amongst all the Auto-Tune voices heating up the radio.
"I love this song," said Keys, taking to one of several pianos rolled out for the show. It's about "the journey to finding who you are."
The lyrics, (view the glorious music video here), represent Keys' evolution: "It's been a while/I'm not who I was before/You look surprised/Your words don't burn me anymore/Been meaning to tell ya/But I guess it's clear to see/Don't be mad/it's just a brand new kind of me/Can't be bad/I found a brand new kind of free."
Keys, meanwhile, looked sultry and modern in a sheer black top with a strategically placed black panel over her chest, curve-hugging black pants and the slick bob haircut that's part of her "brand new" image. When she wasn't tickling the ivories, she was moving around onstage along with her backup dancers, commanding the crowd to dance with them.
During "You Don't Know My Name," she and a dancer acted out a scene between a waitress and her crush, with Keys pretending to ask him out over the phone -- a corny, if unnecessary, flourish on a performance that doesn't need much else besides Keys and her piano. Another contrived moment, on "Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready)," featured an appearance by a tall drink of water who resembled Keys' husband Swizz Beatz, the record producer with whom she has a 2-year-old son, Egypt; she sang while staring deeply into the eyes of Bizarro Swizz, who added nothing to the scenery besides disposable eye candy.
Real sizzle generated on Keys' duet with guest star Maxwell on their silky collaboration "Fire We Make"; when Maxwell unleashed his falsetto, fans roared and began capturing video on their phones. Rapper Method Man also made a cameo, adding verses to a remix of "You're All I Need" that he previously recorded with Mary J. Blige. A hush fell throughout the stands when Jay-Z surfaced in a video intro to "Empire State of Mind" -- for a second, there was the expectation that the mogul and Barclays Center co-owner might pop out from behind the curtain IRL. (He did not! But no matter: Keys' soaring solo is the best part of the track.)
Also flashing on giant screens: images of swirling lyrics, pyramids and cityscapes.
Keys is at her best sans all that flash and spectacle. An impassioned, Alicia-centric performance of "No One" -- her earthy insta-classic from 2007's oustanding As I Am -- prompted concertgoers to jump out of their seats and join in on the triumphant chorus, holding up their phones to create the illusion of a starry stadium sky.
The reinvented Keys -- polished, poised and serene -- lacks in concert the raw ferocity and uninhibited soul of her recordings and performances in music videos. But her positive energy, powerful song repertoire and charismatic presence make up for any restraint on her part. Still: You kind of want Keys, who counts Prince among her influences, to let loose some more and Prince it up on stage.
(Props to opening act Miguel for bringing the funk. The soul singer crooned the "Sexual Healing"-esque "Adorn" and other gems from his critically acclaimed album Kaleidoscope Dreams, whipping out Michael Jackson-style moves and a falsetto that rivals that out-Maxwells Maxwell.)