On the Scene: Alicia Keys' VH1 Storytellers

Image Credit: Michelangelo Di Battista

Alicia Keys’ VH1 Storytellers set at 106 and Park is small but sumptuous with the air of an upscale jazz lounge, the stage adorned with carpets and candles, a stately grand piano at the center.

Keys emerges wearing silver tights and a chin-length bob, strutting about in stilettos. She carries herself onstage with cool and confidence – not showy or attention-seeking, merely comfortable – and speaks in a voice so smooth you could drape it over your shoulders. Everything about the woman – her physique, her demeanor, not to mention her talent as a musician – broadcasts the fame and success that she accepts so casually. Seated in a crowd of perhaps 100, less than ten yards from the singer herself, I am in awe.

Her set list touches on material from most of her career, spanning 2003’s multiplatinum The Diary of Alicia Keys to the upcoming Girl On Fire. She plays rousing hits like “No One” and “If I Ain’t Got You” backed by a six-piece band, but drops down to passionate solo renditions of the new ballads “Brand New Me” and “Not Even the King.” From time to time her voice flags – she takes on a throaty husk whenever she approaches or exceeds her range – but it’s a small bone to pick during such an earnest and otherwise flawless performance.

Of course, Storytellers is designed for exactly that: telling stories. In extended interludes, Keys explains the motivations and processes surrounding her songs – she sings “King” to her son Egypt every night, she admits, and she draws laughs when she tells the audience that Jay-Z rejected her first vocal cut for “Empire State of Mind.” The highlight, though, is her lengthy introduction to “You Don’t Know My Name,” the first single from The Diary of Alicia Keys. She talks about writing and producing the song with then-unknowns Kanye West and John Legend, demonstrating the ways the song evolved in the studio as a result of improvisation. It’s a wonderful anecdote – for a few minutes, she recalls the collaborative, organic, playful songwriting process that took place between future superstars. She is ebullient as she remembers, nostalgia flashing across her face as visibly as her smile.

These moments are where the program succeeds. Alicia Keys isn’t just like you and me – she’s sold 35 million records, remember? – but Storytellers invites us to believe that she’s at least a human being. And the songs are great, too.

VH1 Storytellers: Alicia Keys airs tonight at 11pm EST.

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