Alicia Keys goes pop in Boston

A review of Alicia Keys at the Agganis Arena on April 10, 2013

, Contributing Writer

When Alicia Keys hit the Agganis Arena in Boston last Wednesday, she put on a show that any pop star would be proud of. Dancers, moving screens, videos and animations galore, a few brief interludes, even a costume change. Normally, many of those pieces are simply to distract the audience from noticing lip-syncing or other talent flaws of the performer in question. But when it comes to an artist with the vocal prowess of Ms. Keys, they served as an annoyance, a distraction, and in the end essentially neutered what could have been a very powerful night of music.

The show began with an “Empire State of Mind”-based intro, including drawings of New York buildings projected across a large sheet shielding the stage, finally zooming in on a window where Keys began to sing her hit “Karma”. From her first moments on stage, it was clear just how scripted and timed the evening would be, with male dancers flipping across the space and Keys’ first moments at the piano fleeting.

With the first songs off her latest album, “Tear Always Win” and “Listen To Your Heart”, Keys and her crew of seven musicians (including three backup singers) filled the arena with sound, entertaining the crowd with the dancers, now in suits, and an extremely rehearsed speech from the singer herself.

Everything was over the top. Instead of just allowing viewers to focus on Keys at the grand piano performing “Diary”, the stage-sized sheet returned to display doodles and words from the song. When it came time for “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)”, there was a whole choreographed routine with Keys and one of her dancers.

The audience didn’t get a real sense of the Alicia Keys magic until around halfway through the set, when after finishing an incredible piano solo she dropped the band and launched into “101” solo. With nothing holding them back, her vocals soared as the slower, darker song silenced the crowd as they became lost in her performance. Forget the bells and whistles – this is why Keys became a successful artist in the first place, and she could sell out whatever venue she wanted if she stuck to it.

The quieter number led into her smash hit “Fallin'”, which balanced the band with Keys’ vocals and piano skills in a more appealing manner. The audience sang along, happy to join in when asked.

After a brief performance by a couple of her backup singers while Keys took a break backstage, it was back to the dancing and lights and video screens. From the reggae-inspired “Limitedless” to “Fire We Make” featuring Maxwell contributing his voice via video, the show returned to its popstar-ish ways.

After finishing the regular set by banging out “Girl on Fire” with a drum set, Keys left the stage to change into a black floor-length gown for the encore of “Empire State of Mind”. Occasionally replacing “New York” with “Tonight in Boston”, it seemed as though that was the only personalized piece of the night’s show. What could have been an incredible evening of music instead was just another concert, marking the impact of pop music on R&B today.

Miguel (of the Grammy-nominated single “Adorn” fame) opened the night, utilizing the minimal space allotted to him for showing off his dance moves. Like Keys, he had speeches rehearsed, but on a whole the performance came off as more genuine due to his energy.

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