With images of barbed wire fences flashing on the big digital screens around her, Keys was wheeled out in a rectangular cage for the opening number, "Love is Blind."
Keys sang most of the song inside her personal prison, before dramatically bending back the bars and stepping out to freedom.
In case concertgoers didn't get the point, Keys would spend the next hour dropping inspirational lines between songs while the screens displayed words like "Rise Up" and "Fight." The tour, which takes her to the Verizon Center in Washington tonight, is even called the Freedom Tour.
"I don't want anybody to hold you back," said Keys, her legs shimmering in tight silver sequined pants. "Everything you need is right here inside of you." ...
Might as well add "motivational speaker," to her resume, which already includes armfuls of Grammys and millions upon millions of albums sold. Still, all the uplifting messages got old quick. We get it, Alicia -- love ourselves and break free of the chains that bind us. You don't need to beat us over the head with it.
It was a relief when, in the last third of her 90-minute set, Keys put an end to all the positive messages and let the music speak for itself.
"You Don't Know My Name" was a synth-driven high-stepper, and the James Bond theme "Another Way to Die" was built on singeing guitar riffs. But the show's most poignant moments came when Keys sat down at her black Yamaha baby grand and tickled the ivories. She's got a diva's talents without the attitude, and last night, she had a few toys, too.
During "Fallin'," she played what looked like some kind of electronic auto harp, and for "Go Head," she strapped on a silver, key-shaped keytar (how awesome is that?) and traded solos with her guitarist (the guitarist won). Even the piano was tricked out with a wrap-around digital screen, which said "PLAY ME," and when she did, it read "THANK YOU." Heh.
Keys' accomplished six-piece band and a well-paced set list helped the 19-song show fly by. The harmonies of her three backup singers were air tight; Monte Gill showed and proved on "Diary" and one of the female backup singers surprised the audience with an impressive rendition of "Feeling Good" while Keys slipped into a white evening gown backstage.
The show ended on a strong note, with "If I Ain't Got You," a modern classic, and the 2007 mega hit "No One." The encore was "Empire State of Mind (Part II)," a spine-tingling ode to the Big Apple.
In an age when radio is saturated with Auto-tuned anthems and outrageous outfits, it was such a treat to sit down with an undeniably talented singer and songwriter for an evening of liberating R&B, gospel and pop.
The show started at 9 p.m. and ended at 10:40 p.m. Here is the set list:
1. Love is Blind
2. You Don't Know My Name
4. Another Way to Die
6. Like the Sea
7. I Need You
8. Pray For Forgiveness
10. Like You'll Never See Me Again
11. Wait Til You See My Smile
12. Go Ahead
13. Put It in a Love Song
14. Unthinkable (I'm Ready)
15. Feeling Good
16. Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart
18. If I Ain't Got You
19. No One
Empire State of Mind (Part II)
(Photo by Getty Images)