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Live review: Alicia Keys at the Pantages Theatre

June 26, 2011 |  5:05 pm

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Alicia Keys entered the pop consciousness 10 years ago with “Songs in A Minor.” In a pre-9/11 world of choreographed teen pop and materialistic hip-hop, the debut album’s mix of classical piano and urban beats provided a fresh breath of genuine instrumental and compositional talent. Here was an assured, intelligent 20-year-old who had spent her Manhattan youth practicing piano and playing her mom’s soul records, not dancing as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. Songs such as “Fallin’” and “Never Felt This Way” were instant classics, by the new Aretha/Stevie.

And yet for all that disc’s multiplatinum achievements, celebrating the anniversary of a work that’s just a decade old seems a bit presumptuous and premature. Keys is promoting the Tuesday release of a collector’s edition of “A Minor” with a select number of solo recitals, including her Friday “Piano & I” concert at the Pantages.

The shows are in line with a recent trend in which artists perform and sometimes re-release landmark albums. Recognizing the importance of a groundbreaking disc decades later can be more than an exercise in self-aggrandizement. But reliving your glory days can also easily turn into nostalgic narcissism. For all her talent, beauty and hits, Keys too often fell into that mirrored pit at the Pantages.

Keys set the tone by playing the instrumental part of “Piano & I,” the intro track to “Songs in A Minor.” Her skinny stiletto heels worked the foot pedals of a gorgeous grand piano covered in black and white swirls by artist Jona Cerwinske. Candelabras filled the stage, light flickering on Keys’ head of jaunty curls. The sold-out crowd roared, “I love you, Alicia!” That refrain was repeated all night; it was a mutual love affair.

When Alicia opened her mouth, it wasn’t to sing one of her songs but the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Paul McCartney wrote that tune about soul singers such as Aretha Franklin, and Keys made its message of self-empowerment her own: “I have just been waiting for this moment to be free.”

Keys proceeded to perform covers that she said had influenced her, including songs by DeBarge, Prince, Brian McKnight and Mary J. Blige. She was a good half-hour into the show before she sang one of her own: “Butterflyz,” the sappiest track from “A Minor.” Lyrically and melodically, Keys has a penchant for treacle, for cliched images and tinkling riffs. I lost track of how many times she made references to spreading her wings and/or flying.

The ham-fisted lighting direction and sound didn’t help. Keys would sing about flying up, and the spotlights would rise to the ceiling. Lyrics about coming back down? Here come the lights! Too much echo made her voice bounce off the Art Deco walls; the high notes of both her voice and piano pierced and pitched.

Singing practically every line of every song as an exclamation for an hour and 45 minutes, Keys was not a master of subtlety. She should have built up to the big numbers, such as “Falling’” and 2007’s “Superwoman,” instead of banging every note up to the elegant ceiling. The adoring audience, the cheesy lyrics, the candelabras — Keys strayed perilously close to Liberace territory.

Then again, if you’ve written love songs as anthemic and glorious as “If I Ain’t Got You,” you’re allowed a certain amount of laurel resting. Ending the set (before the encore) with her 2009 radio smash “Empire State of Mind,” Keys showed her career has had legs since her auspicious debut. But she gave no hint of what’s next.

I’ve seen both Britney Spears and Alicia Keys in the last week, and it pains me egregiously to say that 10 years into their careers, it’s the former who has reached into herself and pulled out a new bag of tricks. Onstage, Keys repeatedly said she was thinking about the future. I just heard a glorious but overworked past Friday night. But for a talent like Keys, I’ll keep listening.

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Photo: Singer, songwriter and producer Alicia Keys commemorated the 10th Anniversary of her debut album, "Songs in A minor," with a performance at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Ca., June 24, 2011. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times.

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