Behind her the set is brownstone New York. It could pass for any block in the city. It is her home away from home, complete with fire escapes and her neighborhood stoop. And make no mistake, Alicia Keys is at home.
Keys is so high-profile nowadays, a media darling, burning up the charts and racking up a bunch of Grammy nominations, that it all seems a bit much. Can she really be all that? The unequivocal answer? Yes, she can.
As her tour that included a January gig at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington has proven, Keys is the most slamming thing to emerge from otherwise tired radio waves, and she knows it. At 20, she exudes the confidence of a woman in the prime of her life, knowing that yes, this is the life, and expressing that by the one means she has instantly accessible: her God-given voice. And oh, what a voice. From the heavens above and her grounded heart, this woman can sing.
From the moment she steps on stage, she owns the crowd, snaring listeners in the sweetness of her songs, and then keeping them hooked with the tenacity of her talent. Her mega-hit "Fallin' " only begins to tap into her vocal range and the potential of music yet to come.
She comes out strong, simply sitting at her Kurzweil keyboard and playing the classical chords she learned from the time she was 6, before seamlessly segueing into her own Songs in A Minor, her triple-platinum debut album that helped make her a Rolling Stone cover girl. She moves smoothly between several Baldwin grand pianos positioned on the stage, at ease without elaborate dance numbers that distract from the music (though her "Mr. Man" shows she can get her freak on when she wants to).
It's so hard these days to find R&B; that's not all about sex, money, drugs, Cristal or Benzies. But not with Keys. Her songs are about old school values, a kind of Motown-era innocence that belies a harder edge in today's world. "Why Do I Feel So Sad" and "Goodbye" are poignant anthems to loss tempered with the resilience to move on. Keys has soul and the pipes to back it up.
And, oh yes, the looks. Keys' signature braids swing freely, kept out of her eyes by a purple rhinestone skullcap. A V-neck black fine mesh camisole and stiletto heels cast a feminine sheen on her strut, though her tough-as-nails leather pants and coat give the very distinct impression that this woman has no problems with confrontation.
Keys is all about respecting herself, knowing her "Woman's Worth" while belting out a plea for her man in her rendition of Prince's "How Come You Don't Call Me" that brings the house down.
She's not caught up in cheesy ballads a la Whitney Houston, or playing up the end of drama like Mary J. Blige, or riding rough like rapper Eve. She may not be experienced enough to know the pain and strength that pour from to-the-bone songs by Lauryn Hill or Jill Scott. Keys is a little bit of a lot of past divas, but she's definitely got her own flavor flowing. The well runs deep.
Her effortless way and pure joy in her craft sing of a young Stevie Wonder, with the urban ghetto attitude of Pam Grier thrown in to offset too much sentimentality.
If there's a door to music's promised land, Keys is on the threshold, turning the lock.