Music review: Alicia Keys, 02 Arena, London

 

Halfway through a majestic set that ticks many boxes, during the coda to the stark groove of "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart", as Alicia Keys lets her fingers do the talking on the keyboard and her four-piece band goes into jazz-fusion mode, I wonder if the musician is a virtuoso in the wrong genre.

R&B has become such a part of the lingua franca of contemporary pop that it demands big production values, and the classically trained Keys is competing with Rihanna and Beyoncé when she could be tickling the ivories at Ronnie Scott's or indeed the Royal Albert Hall, as she did two years ago on her intimate Piano & I tour.

But this is an arena show, named after Keys' current album Girl on Fire, which starts with the ominous staccato soul of "Karma" and the singer at the top of a flight of stairs surrounded by four male dancers. Her voice is crystal-clear and pitchperfect, and she looks stunning in a blue lamé top and grey trousers. The cheesy waitress-calling-a-customer-routine of "You Don't Know My name" is hard to take from someone who has sold 35 million albums, but she has enough of a sense of humour to replace the reference to her once-trademark braids with a mention of the shiny black bob she now sports under a wide-brimmed black fedora.

The mostly female audience who turned The Diary of Alicia Keys into a dinner-party favourite a decade ago lap it up. I can't help wondering if, rather than sticking to tried-and-tested matters of the heart, she shouldn’t more often tackle weightier issues commensurate with her Keep a Child alive charity work.

"Not Even the King", co-written with Brit du jour Emeli Sandé, does just that, its thoughtful "they can't afford what we’ve got" refrain providing a welcome respite from the amateur dramatics of her dancers and the pianos – a white yamaha grand here, a red Fender Rhodes there – that keep popping up from the star-shaped stage. Of course, Keys was discovered by Clive Davis, the music mogul with the Midas touch, but she constantly eschews the melismatic clichés of the late Whitney Houston for a more straightforward, yet soulful delivery on superior quiet storm ballads like "Brand New Me" and "If I ain’t Got you".

The uplifting "New day" and the title track of Girl on Fire provide anthemic, mobile-phone waving moments, but are soon outshone by the formidable "Empire State of Mind", her homage to her native New York, even if Jay-Z is only rapping on a video screen. The striking red dress with train Keys is now wearing has turned her into the last of the coffee table soul divas

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