David Bowie, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, Jay-Z, Clive Davis and Mike Mills of R.E.M. all made their way into New York's Hammerstein Ballroom last night for the Black Ball, an event sponsored by Keep a Child Alive to honor Bono, British actor Nick Reding and Dr. Pasquine Ogunsaya -- individuals who've contributed significantly to the furthering of AIDS education and prevention in Africa. The event -- part honors banquet, part pop concert -- opened with thundering drums and hyper-kinetic dancing from Zulu troupe Juxtapower, whose lunges and kicks jump-started an evening that was long on both sentiment and showmanship.
Debuting a hefty cache of songs from her forthcoming As I Am, Keep a Child Alive global ambassador Alicia Keys served as a kind of de facto MC. She egged along the ten-piece band and took pains to connect her material to the evening's overriding theme. Her new songs are warm and relaxed, firmly rooted in gospel and late Sixties R&B. "Like You'll Never See Me Again" was a gorgeous slow-burner, built around a twinkling piano arpeggio and a melody that steadily swells. The empowerment anthem "Superwoman" was insistent and affecting, Keys spilling out its refrain, "Even when I'm a mess / I still put on the vest / with the 'S' on my chest" over spry, bounding chords. Her rendition of "No One" felt triumphant, gaining a kind of power and determination with each pass through its chorus.
If she could have taken on the rest of the night's performances alone, the super-charged Keys probably would have accepted the challenge. After a low-key rendition of "Every Day is a Winding Road," Sheryl Crow joined Keys for a duet on "I Shall Believe." The song is Crow's, but Keys swiftly claimed it, laying deep into its sinuous grooves and filling it with a kind of raw, pulsing ache. Gwen Stefani duetted with Keys on an elegiac version of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," with Keys' vocals lingering in the air, long, haunting and elegant.
Only two performers were capable of matching Keys' mettle. One was Metropolitan Opera singer Kathleen Battle, who joined Keys for a haunting rendition of the semi-obscure U2/Pavarotti collaboration "Miss Sarajevo." The other was Bono himself, who strode onstage near the night's end to duet with Keys on their 2005 collaboration "Don't Give Up." Leaning hard into his phrases, the U2 leader used volume and emphasis to drive the song upward. Near the conclusion, they were joined by members of the Agape Orphanage's children's choir, whose appearance transformed the song from well-meaning sentimentalism to a kind of anthem. Their voices rang out together, a single word over and over, louder every time: "Africa."