Alicia Keys doesn’t need much to fill a big room. As the curtain rose last night at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, Keys sat alone at a piano on a stage crowded with flickering candelabras, playing a baroque instrumental that led into the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” In a voice rich and soaring, she found new bite and meaning in the line: “All my life, I’ve been waiting for this moment to arrive.”
The moment was “Piano & I: A One-Night Only Event With Alicia Keys,” a celebratory concert just ahead of next week’s release of the expanded 10th anniversary edition of 2001’s Songs in A Minor and Thursday’s hometown show at New York’s Beacon Theatre. It wasn’t just a tribute to a great debut album, but a return to the stripped down solo piano mode that began her live performing career.
For nearly two hours at the lavishly Art Deco Pantages, Keys sang with authentic joy and anguish of romantic struggles, empowerment and long goodbyes. Her set was centered on Songs in A Minor, but she also recast some of her later hits to solo piano, turning “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” and “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” into something more painful and direct than the originals. “This night is about the future,” she declared, tapping stiletto heals against her piano pedals.
The show began with a stretched-out medley of songs by artists who inspired her: Mary J. Blige, Biggie Smalls, Brian McKnight and Marvin Gaye, whose classic “Trouble Man” unfolded with an anxious piano melody and a classic Motown groove. “I love this. It’s stripped back and super-raw,” she told fans.
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Now a mother and occasional actress with four studio albums behind her, Keys brought the weight of experience to her performances of A Minor ballads. She pounded the keyboard on a spare “Girlfriend” and sang the aching “Goodbye” with her head tilted back, shouting up to the rafters, “Is this the end? Are you sure?”
She was barely 20 when that debut was released, and not long out of her performing arts high school. The disc announced the arrival of a new pop voice, one tapping into gospel, Sixties/Seventies soul, classical melody and hip-hop force. The album won five Grammys, including Best New Artist.
While the concert was in the center of Hollywood, her heart was clearly back in Manhattan. She told stories of growing up there, of childhood fire-hydrant showers and writing songs on the train. She sang an especially soulful rendition of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” before easing into “Empire State of Mind,” her collaboration with Jay-Z.
She once again ignited a searing “How Come You Don’t Call Me,” a key track on A Minor but originally a B-side by Prince (who just last month brought Keys onstage to perform it as a duet at the Forum across town). She made it her own, recreating the gospel piano and cocking her head sideways playfully to say, “Let me tell you something . . . ” After wailing and raging through the closing lines, she took a breath and said “I get really worked up.”
So did the audience. Fans rose to their feet for the empowering “Superwoman,” and after several male voices yelled “I love you!” Keys declared, “There are a lot of spunky men up here and I love a spunky man.”