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In concert: Alicia Keys

Alicia KeysAlicia Keys showed a different side but stuck to what made her famous at Verizon Center Thursday. (All photos by Mark Gail)

By Sarah Godfrey

Alicia Keys is a self-help-spouting, love song-singing force of positivity, delivering messages of hope and peace with the help of a grand piano. At her show at the Verizon Center on Thursday, however, the Bronx-born singer/songwriter wasn't her usual dervish of pedals and hammers, big ballads and motivational speechifying.

Instead, she treated the packed crowd (which included First Lady Michelle Obama along with daughters Sasha and Malia) to interesting arrangements and some of the weirder tracks from her latest album, 2009's "The Element of Freedom." She sang more and preached less, and spent more time standing at a synthesizer set-up than she did glued to her piano bench.

The concert revealed a slightly edgier side of Keys: there's not exactly a razor blade buried beneath all that candy coating, but definitely a hidden thumbtack or staple.

After Jermaine Paul, Melanie Fiona, and Robin Thicke kicked things off, Keys appeared on a video monitor and stated "I am a renegade," along with a few other unexpected declarations of fierceness. Then, from behind projections of barbed wire, she surfaced - not sitting behind a piano, but locked in a cage.

(Songs new and old, along with more photos, after the jump.)

Alicia Keys

Keys sung most of "Love is Blind," on the new album, from that prison cell, before bending back the "bars" and ambling out onto the stage. It was a nifty, if not quite subtle, way of letting the crowd know that on her tour (as on "The Element of Freedom") she's shrugging off some of her stylistic trademarks and doing come creative wing-spreading.

After her figurative emancipation, Keys launched into a version of "You Don't Know My Name," which scrapped much of the girl group-style of the version on 2003's "The Diary of Alicia Keys," in favor of a more aggressive approach. During "Fallin'," a giant heart throbbed and bled on a video screen while Keys stripped away the song's pretty melody, and put in some dark key work.

Despite a crowd that seemed equally stocked with youngsters and adults who fell in love with her back when she was a straight-forward, earnest soul singer, the audience stayed with her the entire night. Fans even rocked out to "Another Way to Die," her Jack White collaboration from the "Quantum of Solace" soundtrack - an unexpected choice for her live show, considering the large body of well-known hits she has to draw from.

Keys utilized different keyboard set-ups while making "The Element of Freedom," and on Thursday she showed off her newfound skills by fiddling with knobs and creating echo effects for "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart."

That's not to say Keys has completely broken out of her box. She still said such things as "I want you to know you can be free to be yourselves under this roof tonight," and "We are truly unstoppable beings," along with other platitudes one would normally hear during some sort of Saturday-morning seminar held in a Holiday Inn ballroom. And, naturally, the piano eventually appeared and Keys used it for regular old versions of "Diary,"" and "If I Ain't Got You," and "Superwoman" that were safe, but definitely seemed to satisfy. Because while experimentation is nice and all, alienating long-time fans definitely isn't.

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys

By David Malitz  |  March 26, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Alicia Keys  
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