Alicia Keys at the Arie Crown Theatre, February 2002

February 9th, 2002


By Mark Guarino | Daily Herald Music Critic

In these days of brokered fame and instant celebrity, it’s too common for a new star to be thrown on a professional treadmill before they’re ready. Even a veteran like Mariah Carey demonstrated that too much too soon can be exhausting.

Then there’s 21-year-old R&B wonder Alicia Keys who, since the summer,, sold more than 4 million copies of her debut album, “Songs in A Minor” (J Records), won many Grammy nominations and has been this year’s magazine cover princess.

But at what cost At her headlining show at the Arie Crown Theatre Thursday night, it was apparent Keys had been shoved too far into the type of spotlight other singers take years to cultivate.

The consequence of headlining a 4,000 seat theatre when you only have one album in stores is this: a 90-minute show padded with ill-advised skits, canned chatter, awkward dance segments and, the universal sing of despondency, a long bongo solo.

Keys was engulfed by a 10-member band plus three dancers, three backup singers and diminutive rapper Freak Nasty serving as comic relief. That large cast was spread out before a wall-sized backdrop of a Bronx tenement building, complete with floor props that included a telephone both and fire hydrant.

The excessive frills worked against Keys’ reputations as a serious-minded pop artist. She seemed uneasy having to express flat, scripted sentiments. When forced to bump and grind with her male dancer during the song “Jane Doe,” it was for cheap thrills of the Britney Spears variety. At her keyboard Keys looked most comfortable but the constant demands of the Broadways-flavored hoopla refused to let her sit there for long.

Which was a mistake. Her songs lamenting frustrated love were most convincing when she sand them at her keyboard. And while her band punched through her pop-flavored funk with the power of the original JB’s, they also easily switched to the elegant ballads like Sting’s “Fragile.”

The show’s highlight came when Keys switched to a baby grand and played along. Her fingers flourished between classical and ragtime, landing on her song “Butterflyz,” that she sand with wounded despair. You felt you were witnessing genuine greatness – but caged by a system that says that’s not enough anymore.

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