ALICIA KEYS with MIGUEL at the Air Canada Centre. April 2, 2013. Rating: NNN
It's hard to believe Alicia Keys has been a household name for more than a decade. In that time, she's married Swizz Beatz, birthed a child, and released five records. Her latest, Girl On Fire (RCA), is perhaps most assertive about an evolved identity and touches on themes of motherhood and marital love. But even though she's shed the cornrows, Timberlands and hoop earrings for form-fitting outfits and asymmetric haircuts - a kind of hybrid Vegas Revue/we-in-the-club styling - her personality's waned from youthful firebrand to...bland.
Miguel, the L.A.-based R&B crooner on the up, was a good choice of opener for Keys. Like her, his best work is predicated on a reverent, revisionist approach to soul, funk and R&B standards. Right down to his styling - a modish, ankle-grazing, slim- cut, tomato-red suit paired with a black muscle tee - Miguel embodies retro-futurism, which can sometimes veer on corny or camp, particularly when he relies on that MJ spot shimmy and toe stand-shtick. Good thing his music is excellent: velvety love songs (Sure Thing, Adorn), groovy head-nodders (All I Want Is You, Do You...) and pop-rock ramblings (The Thrill). Unlike his sensual solo show in Toronto last December, he was slightly skint-sounding without full back-up vocals, and he kept his 45-minute set PG and personable.
Keys had trouble matching the intensity of that hungry opening set. Her stage show reflects the central dichotomy of her sometimes-milquetoast career post-The Diary of Alicia Keys. Her first songs were some of her oldest (Karma, You Don't Know My Name), which wouldn't be bad except that they were also her strongest, leaving you with the feeling she may have peaked early. Keys is a strong vocalist, but her stage show, with its soul-line backing singers, ungainly quad of male dancers and hydraulic pianos, feels caught up in the pressure to deliver an arena experience.
Alas, she's not that kind of performer. She's not a dancer (so why dance?), she's not particularly charismatic (posing and strutting is pointless), nor is she particularly fashionable (the spangled mesh bodysuit, tight tux pants and t-strap, mid-rise Lucite heels were far from inspired, but at least she spared us any costume changes).
Keys did well on triumphant, warm ballads such as Like You'll Never See Me Again, Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart and No One, though she'd ditch the keys midway to strut and dance. And she redeemed a really weird Bond theme interpolation with a lovely little cover of INOJ's Love You Down, which got the grown audience's attention. But the best parts of the 90-minute show came when Keys showcased some of her best songs - Fallin', Brand New Me, If I Ain't Got You - staying put behind a piano and singing her heart out.