Alicia Keys, National Indoor Arena, Birmingham
The Chemical Brothers, Roundhouse, London
Alicia is just right. Especially when she gets behind a piano
Sunday 23 May 2010
This sounds like a faint-praise damnation, but the girl can't help it if the rest of the field is so mediocre. Alicia Keys is a Goldilocks option.
Glamorous, but free of the vacuous bling of a Beyoncé or a Rihanna. Vocally powerful, but free of the ostentatious acrobatics of the post-Whitney wailers. There's a raw edge to her timbre, pitched between Roberta Flack and Teena Marie, and a subtlety about her manipulation of melody: she dances a slinky samba with the note rather than hurling it. By many measures, Alicia is just right.
At least, she is when she stops pretending to be something she isn't. Keys enters in chains, her cage rattled by sundry vest-wearing acrobats, while a recorded intro tells us she's a "renegade" and "true seeker" with a manifesto "tattooed on to her heart" bearing words such as "fearlessness" and "impertinence".
Put simply, when Alicia Keys is sitting down, she's great. When she's standing up, she isn't. And it takes her seven songs to sit down. By that point she's already murdered "Fallin'", a debut single which seemed to announce a stunning new talent (even if the melody was essentially the verses from Queen's "We are the Champions"). When I first saw her perform it almost a decade ago, Keys had Wembley in the palm of her hand and you could hear a pin drop. Tonight, she tosses it away on a toy synth the size of a Fisher Price play centre.
When she finally parks her ass at a piano it's worth the wait. She's unquestionably got the material. "Like You'll Never see me Again" is a clever variation on the last two minutes of "Purple Rain". Jack White collaboration "Another way to Die" is one of the strangest Bond themes ever, sounding like a sketch towards a song rather than the finished item, but still oozes cool. "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart" is a high quality melodramatic R&B showstopper, and "If I Ain't Got You", the Aretha-esque tearjerker from her criminally underrated second album The Diary Of Alicia Keys, may be X Factor audition fodder nowadays, but it's a superior class thereof. Don't pretend it hasn't caught you unawares on the car radio and had you emotionally howling along.
The best time to catch Alicia Keys may be on the theatre circuit in 15 years' time, perched at the baby grand, having kicked the ill-fitting arena trappings into touch. It won't be for a while yet. The enormo-hit "Empire State of Mind" has booted her career into an upward curve and she knows it, belting out its refrain "concrete jungle where dreams are made of" with enough gusto – reciprocated 12,000-fold – to make you forget it's a crime against grammar.
It feels strange seeing The Chemical Brothers in the first fortnight of a Tory government, with the New Labour project six feet under. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands are inextricably linked to the Britpop era, and impossible to separate from the aspirations and attitudes of that time. Ed and Tom were the party. Unlike many studio-bound peers, the Chemicals were DJs at heart, their priority was always making people dance. That's why, for a while, every single was welcomed like – excuse the pun – tablets from on high: from now on, this is what you'll be dancing to.
There isn't quite the same anticipation surrounding Further, for which this show is a launch: before "Snow" has properly begun, a circular overhead rig of spotlights and smoke machines suddenly sends directional jets down on to the crowd before lifting off, giving the impression of being beneath the boosters at Cape Canaveral.
They've thrown a lot of money at the visuals (which will be packaged with the album in DVD form), bringing in Dr Who director Adam Smith, even if it mainly consists of some very Eighties green lasers, the man from the Old Grey Whistle Test title sequence doing the moonwalk, and what looks like a giant game of Pong.
Of course, with a show like this – basically a disco where all the songs are by one band – the gimmicks are vital. The once yak-like, now boffin-bald Ed and the amusingly light-on-his-feet Tom lurk uneasily behind banks of twinkling LEDs and ... what, exactly? It may be the most obvious thing you can say about a dance act, but what are they doing, besides maybe tweaking the bass up a bit here, and the treble down a bit there?
Not that any dial dips below 11. It's so loud I feel like my eardrums are bleeding. So loud, paradoxically, that I can't hear it, or make any sensible judgement on Further, other than to say that it's uncharacteristically sample-free and almost devoid of vocals, and that otherwise they adhere to their own formula: you know exactly how long the tension-build will last, you know precisely how many bars till the big release.
A promising sign is that I'm still thinking of "Swoon", the accurately-titled and very now-friendly single, after the hits encore has been and gone – 2010 might not be a very Chemical Brothers year, but Chemical Brothers are sounding very 2010.
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