First, a confession: I dislike “Girl on Fire.” The first time I heard the single from Alicia Keys’ latest album, I thought it was too full of the whiny monotone typical of today’s R&B singers and unworthy of Keys’ talents. It even made me worry: Had one of my musical idols strayed so far into generic pop stardom that she’d lost her relevance?
Judging by Friday’s concert, I needn’t have fretted. The Princess of Soul played a fast-paced, hit-packed set light on gimmicks that focused the attention where it belonged: on her awe-inspiring pipes and prodigious piano-playing skill.
Keys owned the audience from the moment she emerged from a set of a New York row house, peeking coquettishly out from under a broad-brimmed hat. Backed by a full band, she took turns on the grand piano, keyboard and even the drums as she led the audience through the arc of a love story, from breathless courting (“You Don’t Know My Name”) to deciding whether to commit (“Unthinkable,” in which a duet with a male dancer captured the restless push-pull of a forbidden relationship).
The show climaxed with “101,” a vulnerable heartbreaker that had Keys’ voice ringing with raw emotion, before settling down into a contented groove with songs that celebrated empowerment and enduring love—“No One,” “New Day” and the sweet, pure “Not Even the King,” which the singer dedicated to her son, Egypt.
Throughout, Keys sprinkled in inspirational messages that seemed mostly aimed at women: Don’t be afraid to call a guy. Know yourself. Listen to your heart. “You can be on fire when you don’t let anyone hold you back, or hold you down or box you in,” she told the audience. “And it’s not an easy journey. I know that.”
Were there low points? Just a few. A skit that accompanied “You Don’t Know My Name” felt silly, and a slightly awkward version of the dancehall classic “Murder She Wrote” hinted that the soul singer can falter when she takes on other genres. But in this era of Auto-Tune and lip-synching, we’re willing to forgive someone of Keys’ artistry almost anything. ★★★★☆