She is, she sings, a “Girl on Fire,” smoldering seductively from photographs. A night with Alicia Keys, one might surmise, would be filled with sexy incendiary soul.
The reality is more conservative as Keys’s “Set the World on Fire” tour continues through Europe this month.
Based on shows so far, it seems Keys changes her piano more often than her costume. The star wears a glittery blue top and defiantly modest polo-neck with figure-loving pants. Only in the encore is this changed for a full-length red dress.
She is happier swapping between a white baby grand, a shiny black upright and a red electric keyboard. In large venues such as London’s O2, the video screens mostly show close-ups of her emoting at her various ivories.
Keys is an accomplished, enjoyable musician. She declaims the big tunes. She also sings with sweetness and emotional subtlety. The melismatic acrobatics, so beloved of lesser singers attempting to assert their talents, are deployed rarely.
The big pop hook of “No One” stands proud. “You’ll Never See Me Again” is all the more powerful for Keys’ restraint. “Tears Always Win” is classic Motown gold.
“Doesn’t Mean Anything” finds Keys at her most rousing. It sounds like a soul version of Coldplay. Lyrics too often veer toward “be true to yourself” banality. Melodies aver too much ambition. If Keys was any more middle of the road, she would be squashed by a truck.
The scrubbed hip hop beats of her records are replaced by the funky jams of her band. A few sorties into Jamaican dancehall are embarrassingly staid.
By the end of the modest 100 minute set, the lack of spice and overkill of nice starts to become suffocating.
Even “Girl on Fire” is more scented candles than passionate inferno. Respite only comes with the final track and a video of Jay-Z’s rap for the mighty “Empire State of Mind,” too little, too late.
The “Set the World on Fire” tour is in Cologne, Germany, tonight, and continues in June with shows in the Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Portugal and Poland. July’s shows are currently in Istanbul and Israel. Information: http://aliciakeys.com/events/
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on New York dining and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.