Alicia Keys

Magnificent Alicia Keys pours heart and neo-soul into concert    ·    May 6th, 2005

Labels such as “throwback,” “old-school” and “retro” don’t do Alicia Keys justice. Where the Maxwells and Musiq Soulchilds of pop music fall over themselves to sound vintage, Alicia Keys recalls the majesty of Aretha and Stevie by the mere power of her melodies and the tightness of her arrangements. Her performance last night at the Agganis Arena further demonstrated her reign over the neo-soul pack.

A 1930s Harlem Cotton Club theme set the tone of the evening, the set designed in all white, with the band sporting vintage swing-era costumes. But the nostalgia theme wasn’t reserved for the visuals: The arrangement of the opening tune, the current r & b single “Karma,” was given a big-band jazz makeover.

Standing out from the period dress of her band, Keys pranced around the stage in a flesh-baring turquoise bodysuit, not exactly a garment Ella Fitzgerald would have chosen, but eye-popping nonetheless. The band soon shifted from the ’30s to the ’70s for a double shot of blaxploitation-styled uptempo funk on “Rock Wit U” and “Heartburn,” before settling down with the groovy piano ballad, “If I Was Your Woman.”

The most engaging parts of the show were not the fancy swing-era skits or the period costumes. When Keys sat down at her piano and let her magnificent voice shine, as on the r & b bump and grind of “How Come You Don’t Call Me?” and the spare solo piano shout of “Wake Up,” the fans were at their most rabid.

Since the theme was 1930s Harlem, the Cab Calloway “Hi di hi di hi di ho” chant was inevitable and unnecessary, but not all the Depression- era winks fell flat. After a quick costume change, Keys donned a satiny evening gown complete with elbow-length gloves and a feather boa, and proceeded to nail the Billie Holiday standard “Good Morning Heartache,” a tune most of her neo-soul peers probably have never even heard of. The women dominating the arena then got a chance to be heard, lustily bellowing to the piano-pounding bounce of “Fallin,” as Keys graciously gave way to her throat-tearing fans.

Occasionally Keys would fall prey to the modern-day r & b virus of oversinging, putting too much of a charge into the sweet soul ballad “You Don’t Know My Name,” but for the most part, she placed her shouts and wails at appropriate times. Keys ended the night with her near-flawless ballad, “If I Ain’t Got You,” an undeniable soul standard, modern or classic. Alicia Keys is no neo-soul singer. Drop the prefix. She’s a soul singer. Period.

Anthony Hamilton took newcomer John Legend’s place as Keys’ opening act, but it became obvious why Hamilton was her second choice. Melodies were scarce and arrangements spotty throughout his set, which relied heavily on gospel and old-school soul forms, but lacked substance.

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