WASHINGTON - A few songs into Alicia Keys' set at the MCI Center on Wednesday night, she descended a staircase to thunderous applause and then stopped. Appearing humbled and stunned by the roaring crowd, she cocked her head, paused and finally seemed to realize: "Oh, yes, I'm Alicia Keys!"
Billed - correctly - as one of the leading ladies of R&B; and hip-hop by the Verizon Ladies First Tour, Keys proved she's second to none in a concert that also brought Beyonce and Missy Elliott to Washington. While those two women offered their canned and contrived moves, it was Keys who won the crowd's heart with her soulful piano ballads.
The four-hour concert was vexed by frequent breaks for set and costume changes and failed to gain real momentum until its closing minutes, when Jay-Z joined a red-slippered Beyonce on stage for the hit "Crazy in Love." But by that point, the show was over.
Other VIPs were also in attendance. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National chairman, was escorted into a special entrance shortly after 7 p.m. The Democrats have been increasing their presence at hip-hop shows this year in attempts to raise money. But with tickets for this show selling at up to $77.50, the party had its work cut out.
Missy Elliott, the hip-hop queen, began the concert promptly at 7 p.m. and played to a half-empty arena. At times, she tried to energize the crowd by wading into the aisles, but the response was lackluster. Everyone was waiting for the main event.
Between sets, fans had to endure Verizon's TV commercials played at deafening volume on the big-screen displays. Even James Earl Jones doesn't sound so smooth when pumped to the level of a jet engine.
But Keys' performance overcame such distractions. The 23-year-old, who began taking piano lessons when she was 7 and whose vocal talent recalls legends like Aretha Franklin, became an instant hit when her first album, 2001's Songs in A Minor, was released and won her five Grammys.
Her follow-up, last year's The Diary of Alicia Keys, finds her moving from rhythm-and-blues to soul, and it provided the bulk of the songs for Wednesday night's show. Keys opened with "Karma," a song about a woman faced with a man who wants to come back to her after disrespecting her. "Don't play with me," Keys warned, a fedora with a pink ribbon atop her head and an eight-piece band backing her up. "Cause what goes around comes around."
Keys had her diva moments as well, at one point standing on a box and conducting her band in a bland instrumental, and at another point slithering on top of her grand piano. But she was at her most effective seated at the piano, by herself on stage, singing gorgeous ballads including "If I Ain't Got You," "Diary" and the Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye."
Her dancers and backup singers were fine supplements, but they never got in the way, as Beyonce's did at times. Her male dancers, in particular, seemed to delight in long, flying leaps, tight spins and back flips that took them from one end of the stage to the other. At other times, when Beyonce was near, they would writhe on the floor in submission to her.
But Beyonce's entrance was still more overdone. She was carried from the rear of the floor to the stage in a Cleopatra-style bed with a silk canopy, waving to her shrieking fans and tossing rose petals along the way. It set the tone for a performance that was flashy and elaborately produced but lacking the magic that Keys conjured.
During one of Beyonce's many costume changes, the crowd was treated to a videotaped backstage tour. Mainly consisting of Beyonce knocking on the doors of the other performers and embracing them, the video was a dud. It didn't help that the audio was crackly and the exchanges inaudible.
After singing and dancing for an hour, Beyonce left the stage and a DJ encouraged the crowd to cheer loud enough for her to return. She came back for a one-song encore, if you can call it that, giving the crowd what they wanted to hear - "Crazy in Love." Halfway through, Jay-Z came onto the stage for a minute to the loudest cheers of the night. Ladies first indeed. He was gone before the cheers had subsided.
But the most astute set closer belonged to Keys, who sang "You Don't Know My Name" from her new album. The song features a one-sided cell phone conversation between a coffee shop waitress and the guy she has a crush on. She asks him out, but then loses the signal.
"Can you hear me now?" she pleaded, a cell phone pressed to her ear, echoing the famous catchphrase of the Verizon Wireless commercials in, of all places, the MCI Center.
It didn't matter. We heard her just fine.
The Ladies First Tour returns to MCI Center on Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $67.50 and $77.50 (plus service charges). Call 410-481-SEAT or go online to ticketmaster.com.