Miguel’s on fire, Keys is not so hot

by Ryan Snyder


If there was a debate over which Grammy winner — Alicia Keys in the reaffirmation of her pop divadom, or R&B gatecrasher Miguel in the midst of a massive breakthrough — most emphatically grabbed the affections of the spare Easter weekend crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday, one needed look no further than the show’s ASL interpreter for final arbitration. Signing a concert is inherently a performance art in its own right, and her treatment of Keys’ occasionally astonishing, but too often lackluster headlining set suggested as much; whether it was the naked primitiveness of “101,” the chorale detonation “Empire State of Mind” or the clumsy soap opera treatment of “You Don’t Know My Name,” the effort and accents registered at merely above par.

But for Miguel, the effort was hormonal, likely as lusty an exhibition as the lone signee had ever received from a liaison. Her gyrations and adoring facial expressions were an impassioned, and accurate, portrayal of the raw sexuality that Miguel’s music projects and, to some degree, an imagined seduction of the Los Angelino singer himself. That Miguel could outshine his superstar headliner in less time and with fewer production frivolities was not altogether unexpected; he’s not burdened by the duality of needing to constantly remind an older audience that he’s still the songwriting and instrumental mensch of a decade ago, while serving as the showpiece for big, invasive marketing money. He’s simply an extraordinary talent with cross-generational appeal.

When her groundbreaking Songs In A Minor was released in 2001, the same was said about Keys. Now, she’s in a peculiar place in her first major foray following 2011’s short, but remarkably well-received piano tour. There was a time when Keys was an irreproachable presence in pop music; a faithful return to the standards-era charmers, capable of wowing equally with her immaculate range and willowy fingertips. Then it became clear that Keys would never meet an underachieving business she wouldn’t shill for, and her beautiful balladry began leaning more toward anthemic pop, market-tested for 10-second hits in prime ad slots. “Girl On Fire” was the heavy ordnance in Citibank’s NFL Sunday carpet-bombing last fall, but Keys’ newest endorsement deal confronts her fans with an even more pervasive sales element.

There was no line of sight in the coliseum concourse that didn’t include a BlackBerry rep ready to talk up the company’s pis aller, the outcome of Keys’ being named the company’s “global creative director” — a fancy new term for spokesperson that is the rage in celebrity endorsements (see: Keys’ husband Swizz Beatz). It seems that similar dutifully researched analyses asserted that NFL fans can be swayed into bad credit-card deals by grandiose, five-word chorus spackled between every down series and that concertgoers are excellent marks for aggressive mobile-phone demo-ing. Surely, Keys’ cell-phone skit for “You Don’t Know My Name” where she resumed her waitress role from the song’s video helped seal the deal.

But the evening’s heavy-handed pitch didn’t altogether overwhelm the narrative arc — the birth, crest and demise of a romance from a woman’s perspective — that her song selection created. Backed by a full band arrangement whose presence was often little more than perfunctory, it was vintage Keys during her turns on the Steinway piano — the video boards rarely failing to seize a close-up of her hands. Though her work on the Fender Rhodes for numbers like “Unbreakable” provided the happiest medium between the subdued chanteuse and statuesque (few can stand still while swathed in spotlights like Keys) pop idol.

Contrasted with the latter, however, the more intimate moments felt like damp segues from one dance routine to the next.

Keys barely gave time for the audience to catch its breath after the delicate “Love You Down” before throwing up a bait and switch with Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote” on the hook with “Limitedless” as the catch. For an audience that had essentially laid dormant for the first half of the two-hour show, it was as good of a reason as any to stretch its legs.

There’s no debating that Keys has the songs, the allure and the voice for the big room — even if the 7,000 on a Saturday is as small an audience as the coliseum will have all year — when she’s forced to flounder outside her comfort zone, she’s doing little justice to the Keys that heralded a return to authenticity in pop. As long as she can sell a few phones, though, her most urgent obligations are fulfilled.