DETROIT -- "Songs in the Key of A" made Alicia Keys a superstar almost a decade ago.
But songs in the key of loud is what she was about at the Fox Theatre on Friday night (March 5).
After opening her Freedom Tour with a trio of arena gigs in Ottawa, Montreal and Chicago, Keys and her 12-piece stage entourage (band plus three dancers) scaled things down to theater size for a pair of Detroit concerts. But a smaller venue did not mean a smaller show, and Keys' 95-minute exposition was delivered with a full-sized compliment of bombast, from bi-level staging to scripted banter, five costume changes, strobe lighting and extensive video production on a three-panel LED screen above the group.
The dazzle component was certainly high -- but Keys is not an artist the kind of artist that requires it. Quite the opposite, in fact; the key to Keys' success -- and what sets her apart from spectacle-oriented pop chart peers such as Beyonce and Mariah -- has always been her ability to sit at a piano and bare her soul in crafted, sophisticated songs that showcase one of the best five voices currently working in popular music. And there just wasn't enough of that on Friday.
Oh, there was some. With a grand piano beckoning Keys to "Play Me" via an electronic message board on its side, she sat down for an effective mid-show set that included a solo rendition of "Prayer For Forgiveness" -- a song from bonus editions of her latest album, 2009's "The Element of Freedom" -- "Diary" and "Like You'll Never See Me Again." The piano returned at the end of the night, just as Keys got into her bomber's run of hits that included "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" and strong versions of "Superwoman" and "If I Ain't Got You," as well as the encore "Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down," during which she name-checked "Dee-troit" in place of New York (good thing we're not Albuquerque, eh?).
The rest of the night, however, found Keys in Beyonce mode, but not seeming fully committed to that direction. The choreography was minimal to the point where it was distracting. The rash of political imagery on the video screen did not really mesh with what she was singing about in the accompanying songs, and the sheer volume of the show pushed Keys' voice into territory that sounded strained and occasionally screechy, which was a near-criminal misuse of her talent.
Some of it worked, including "Karma's" punchy energy and the torchy R&B balladry of "Un-thinkable (I'm Ready)." And Keys' three backup singers nicely filled in Beyonce's duet portions on "Put It in a Love Song." But the dramatic arrangement of "Fallin' " was overdone, and the staging of "Love is Blind," with Keys in a cage, and "Wait Til You See Me Smile," which she sang in a sinister looking dentist's chair, were simply distractions.
Keys, who introduced herself as "a renegade, a truth-seeker," has certainly earned her "Freedom" as an artist and the leeway to experiment with her stage persona. But, as we saw on Friday, not all of those ideas suit her.
Opening act Melanie Fiona got things off to a good start, at least with a half-hour set showcasing songs from her 2009 debut album, "The Bridge." The Toronto singer showed off a rich voice and a taste for upbeat, Motown-style R&B/pop such as "Bang Bang," "Give It To Me Right" (which samples the Zombies' "Time of the Season") and "Johnny," as well as solid balladry like "Teach Him." She noted that Friday was her "first major show in Detroit," and her performance will certainly have those who caught it anticipating the next one.
Keys and Melanie perform again at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 6, at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $48-128. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com
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