Alicia Keys at Staples Center: From 'Caged Bird' to 'Freedom' fighter
Alicia Keys has said her “Freedom” tour is all about liberation, finding yourself, letting go of anything that may be holding you back, self-love and possibilities. She made sure those themes were heard loud and clear at her concert Tuesday night at Staples Center.As images of barbed wire fences flashed on multiple screens, Keys slowly emerged onstage, trapped in a cage adorned with heavy chains. She teased the audience with “Caged Bird” from her debut album before launching into the opening number, “Love Is Blind,” from her newest album, “The Element of Freedom.”
Playing every bit the pop diva, Keys, in form-fitting silver sequined pants and a red blazer, dramatically broke from the cage, turning her new-found freedom into an instant celebration. She sang and danced with a small arsenal of dancers to the opening and “You Don’t Know My Name,” the Kanye West-produced hit from her second album, which she infused with West’s own “Flashing Lights.” Although the audience might not have recognized the electronic-tinged original, Keys commanded the concertgoers with moves and vocal acrobatics befitting a pop diva.
But unlike many of her contemporaries, she had an inspirational message attached to the glitzy production. Whether it was “peace,” “love” or “unity” (all of which flooded the screens at some point or other), Keys came to entertain and uplift.
However, as eye-popping as the visuals were, they often became distracting -- and at times confusing. The connection might have been lost in translation when images of what appeared to be the civil-rights movement splashed across the screen during “You Don’t Know My Name.” Yet watching Keys jam to “Karma” in front of a collage of images depicting the stock market crash put new emphasis on her lyrics: “What goes around, comes around / What goes up, must come down / Now who's crying, desiring to come back.”She didn’t waste much time getting to her signature hit “Fallin',” which she turned into a dreamy soundscape as she played what appeared to be a tiny electronic heart. An image of a burning heart dripped behind her. She lost the audience’s attention, though, when she performed her James Bond theme song, “Another Way to Die,” which might not have been well known among the mostly seated crowd.
Keys won over her audience when she answered a question on many concertgoers' minds: “Where was tour mate Robin Thicke?” Earlier, groans were audible outside the arena as ushers announced to the lengthy lines of concertgoers that the singer would not be present. Keys took the time to announce (and congratulate) Thicke and wife Paula Patton on the birth of their first son Tuesday before the show. Those earlier groans became thunderous cheers in the venue.(Thicke said Patton delivered son Julian Fuego in Los Angeles. "Mother, father and son are all doing well," Thicke's rep said.)
The highlights of Keys’ show came once she was reunited with her piano, which brings out the best of her songbook. As roadies rolled a black grand piano onto the stage, the instrument seemed to read the minds of the audience and literally beckoned to the singer via words scrolling on the side of the piano’s wrap-around digital screen: “Play me.” When she sat and started a melody, it thanked her.
Keys treated the crowd to an astounding rendition of “Pray for Forgiveness,” which she said was one of her favorite songs. Unfortunately, unless fans owned the deluxe edition of “Freedom,” the track was unknown.
She was at her peak when she was with the piano, trading all the flashing imagery (which at one point oddly included Princess Diana, Gandhi, JFK and Bob Marley) for simplicity. Purple and white flowers and birds appeared on the screen as she took on fan favorites such as “Diary” and “Like You’ll Never See Me Again.” (The latter surely made it to many in boxes Tuesday night, as fans pulled out camera phones to tape it.)
The 100-minute show picked up in the last half when she ran through hits that got the crowd’s attention -- and fans out of their chairs. “Put It in a Love Song,” though without Beyoncé, still showed off the sultry side of Keys, as did “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart,” "If I Ain’t Got You” and “No One.”
Keys ended with “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down,” the solo version of the massive duet with Jay-Z. Like any expert performer, she tailored the lyrics for L.A., and with lights beaming toward the Staples ceiling, she directed the audience to put “one hand in the air for the big city.” Like any good audience, they complied.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy