LivePLAY: Alicia Keys, London O2, 31/05/13

Alicia KeysWe’ve been to some strange gigs in our time. We’ve seen Wayne Coyne zorb over our heads in a giant hamster ball, we’ve seen Robyn dance in skintight leather for nearly two hours. And yet the only way we can describe Alicia Keys’s Girl on Fire tour is, well, bat-shit bizarre.

We ought to write a disclaimer here and say that, genuinely, we love Ms Keys. Despite not taking to her last album, we stand by her being one of the finest vocals in the business; Songs in A Minor and The Diary of Alicia Keys were genuinely groundbreaking R&B albums, still a lesson to anyone breaking through today.

After being wonderfully supported by Miguel (could have happily sat through another hour, pleased to report no casualties), Keys appears on stage over a CGI New York that looks like it was rendered on Windows 95. She struts down a stage sporting a sun-hat over an awkward bob cut, like a secretarial LaToya Jackson going to a fancy dress funeral. But Alicia Keys’s ‘leftfield’ (polite word) fashion choices are nothing new, and certainly not worth dwelling on here.

Keys opens with a flurry of humdrum songs from the new album, each as unmemorable as the last and as they were on record – effectively, the first half of the gig is that awkward George Michael/White Light moment from the Olympics stretched to 20 minutes. Somehow over the years, an artiste who could have been, in the words of one of her earliest songs, simply ‘Piano & I’ has been slotted into the arena pop category, attracting the strangest cross-section of the British public in the process.

So we get laboured dance routines and attempts to whip the crowd into a frenzy, while all the while that vocal suffers. This is primarily the problem: delicate songs like Diary and Fallin’ end up being shouted out in the same register to fill an arena; Keys doesn’t take the time to pour in the necessary emotion that made these songs such big hits. Further evidence? The heartbreaking ballad Doesn’t Mean Anything is turned more uptempo, which Keys gets everyone to fast-clap along with. Apparently that really expresses pain.

It doesn’t end there. Keys then turns around to introduce London’s own Labrinth to the stage, and then promptly leaves to let him perform two songs.  At her own gig. Madness.

Embarrassingly, Labrinth has more people on their feet in two minutes than Keys did in the 30-odd preceding it. And how does she capitalise on this new-found vigour? By performing two forgettable also-ran songs from the new album instead of any chart-busting hits, by which point half the audience would probably have preferred a visit from Operation Yewtree than sit through another song they hardly cared about.

And it gets even more bizarre. Just as we’d resigned ourselves to the fact that Keys’s mediocrity renders her the female John Legend, out comes John Legend himself. However, in a moment of genuine spine-tingling brilliance, the two abandon all frills and sing a beautifully realised version of Ordinary People. Quite the moment to witness, and the sort of spontaneity that makes us fall in love with live music all over again.

After that, Keys is buoyant, delivering hit after hit, but it seems too little too late. Of course our judgement could be questionable, given that a darling  gran in front of us with Pat Butcher earrings was about 10bpm away from slut-dropping; yet for a tour called Girl on Fire, Alicia Keys set very little aflame tonight.