By the time I reach the Ballroom at 9.30 pm, having agreed to cover this review at the last minute, the young and beautiful of Birmingham have been kept in an excited state for the previous 2 hours by DJ sets and performances from Miguel and Disclosure, as the final night of a 4-date tour hosted by Radio 1 Xtra LIVE! lands in Birmingham. Having previously been in London, Manchester and Liverpool, previous headliners have been Trey Songz, Rita Ora and Plan B.
Tonight we’re awaiting the presence of Alicia Keys.
As the clock strikes 10, and after an extended intro by the compere, Mrs Keys slinks onto the stage with all the calm assurance of a prodigiously talented woman who has shifted over 30 million units, scooped 9 Grammys and won the genetic lottery.
Sporting short, slick cropped hair, black leggings, serious heels and a rather understated top, she acknowledges the ecstatic reception as she launches into ‘New Day’, the 2nd track off her forthcoming album Girl On Fire. The crowd is a sea of smart phones and the impressive 4-piece band, with 2 excellent backing singers, lock into the groove and don’t put a foot wrong for the next 60 minutes.
Keys’ voice is strong and the sound mix is impressive for the size of the venue – clear and balanced and, although she is more used to rocking arenas, she gives this relatively intimate, enthusiastic crowd her full attention, fully committing vocally to each line.
In between songs, Alicia keeps the crowd engaged with her dreamy drawl, seamlessly flowing from the beat heavy ‘Karma‘, to the reggae -lite bounce of ‘You Don’t Know My Name’, both off her 2nd album, ‘The Diary of Alicia Keys’, the follow up to the world-wide smash of the critically acclaimed ‘Songs in A Minor.’
By the time we reach the middle of this well balanced set, she’s given ‘Doesn’t Mean Anything’ and ‘Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart’ an outing, both from her 4th studio album ‘Element of Freedom’ in 2009; her only album to hit the top spot in the UK.
She changes down a gear for her new single, the power ballad ‘Brand New Me’ which shows off what Alicia Keys is all about. Just her, the voice and the piano, “It’s been awhile, I’m not who I was.” she oozes in the verse (which probably explains the new hair cut!) and it’s at this point we are reminded that we are in the presence of a truly remarkable musical talent; vocally, she has great power and range whilst her flawless vocal technique allows her to reveal the slight vulnerability in its tone. She has the right blend of professional gloss and soulfulness, all wrapped in a radiantly beautiful package which have elevated her to global fame and kept her there.
After the title track from Girl On Fire (in Ab major) we’re on the home straight as the familiar intro to ‘Fallin’ is welcomed with warm recognition from the young crowd whose energy seem to lift in anticipation of a grand finale.
‘Empire State of Mind pt 3′ and ‘No-One’ complete the hat-trick of hits and, as Keys leaves the stage having expressed her gratitude to the crowd and Radio 1 Xtra listeners , she cheerfully exits stage left, leaving the band jam out the ending.
Although ten minutes shy of the allotted hour, the crowd follow suit and leave quickly en masse. Less than a couple of minutes later shrieks and screams from the remaining punters signal the fact that Keys and her band have returned to the stage to complete their encore. Without further ado she settles into another new track ‘Not Even The King’ minus the accompaniment from Emilie Sande and finally closes on ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ from’ The Diary..’ album.
Again she takes her leave after thanking us all profusely, and of course the man upstairs. As the band extend the song with a finale jam, this time the crowd know she won’t be back on and exit swiftly.
Alicia Keys’ performance tonight was very much like her appearance: As slick as her hair, tight as her leggings and as inoffensive as her face.
Review – Spence Cater
Photo – James Watkins