Much has gone on in Alicia Keys’ life since her last album. Motherhood and her union to rapper now her producer Swizz Beatz in a Zulu-blessed ceremony in South Africa have already persuaded critics that the keenly anticipated forthcoming release Girl on Fire will provide a fresh departure for her considerable talents.
She has certainly got a new haircut. Gone are the shoulder length tresses and in is an austere bob that suggests a tougher more business-like approach to things. Not of course that she has been lacking in the commercial department over the past decade in which time she has become one of the world’s most bankable singing and - to a lesser extent - acting stars with album sales nudging 30m and 14 Grammies decorating her Manhattan mantelpiece.
Manchester Cathedral was the surprising choice of venue to showcase new tracks as well as some old favourites ahead of the November release date. The collaboration between MTV and Manchester City Council was being beamed to giant screen in the cathedral precincts but the weather meant it was a near- total washout. Inside however, the atmosphere was far more welcoming.
Angels clutching gilded instruments peer down from the nave roof of St Mary’s, built in the perpendicular Gothic style. And Keys seemed very much to like her surroundings- even if she was not so keen on the Manchester weather. Her well-drilled professional performing arts school background might easily have earned her a place at neighbouring Chetham’s School of Music, whose pupils are regular performers within this space.
An accomplished pianist with a soaring contralto that was bouncing off the stonework, Keys evinces a slick musicality and a highly competent vision of post millennial R n B, tinged with blues, gospel and cool jazz. Her work –You Don’t Know My Name, Unthinkable, Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart - resonate with a ballsy defiance. Her lyrics are peppered with epigrams of romantic and personal empowerment and the determination to overcome emotional vulnerability.
It is easy to dismiss many of these sentiments as shallow or banal but her finest song Empire State of Mind really inspires. The 2009 collaboration with Jay-Z, of which she is a co-writer, is a modern classic – despite some clonking scans and it was enjoyably executed in this setting. The new work – New Day, Not Even the King – blended easily with the old and even if the crowd started to lose interest a little after her big hit, this was an interesting opportunity to catch a true mega star up close.