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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 7:16 pm | Fair 50º


Paul Mann: Alicia Keys Dazzles at the Bowl

The sultry singer plays an explosive set to open the venue's 2010 season

Alicia Keys brought the official opening night of the Santa Barbara Bowl’s 2010 season to life with a dazzling arena-style show that Lady Ga Ga or Madonna might have enjoyed.

On Wednesday, a hot, dry santa ana wind blew in from the mountains, slicing through Santa Barbara’s usually cool, salty haze drifting off the ocean. The resulting warm, crystal-clear sky, complete with a stunning sunset, lingering brilliant twilight and star-filled night, was the perfect backdrop for the impressive show.

Santa Barbara residents are lucky to have one of live music’s most prestigious venues in their backyard (for some literally). Extensive renovations have been completed on the main stage, and the venue is now capable of handling most any arena-sized music set. But with the relatively intimate, 4,500-person capacity, it’s a tribute to the hard work of many that the Bowl is usually the smallest stop for many of the world’s biggest touring bands.

A confluence of circumstances have made this venue a unique experience in concert attendance. The close proximity to Los Angeles and the many years of experience by main promoter Nederlander Concerts provide a unique opportunity to bring the biggest world tours up the coast for an extra show or two. This important connection combined with the many Bowl volunteers and supporters help make the shows possible.

The all-volunteer usher force, which can be easily spotted wearing this year’s yellow shirts, look like an army of bumble bees. They help subsidize the concert experience by holding ticket prices to affordable levels. Also helping subsidize the Bowl are many Santa Barbara residents, who donate large sums of money to the nonprofit Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation. There would be no Bowl season as we know it if any of these elements were missing.

Melanie Fiona opened for Keys to a nearly full house, surprising for an opening act at the Bowl. The Canadian soul singer played a strong short set of classic R&B music, tinged with influences from her Guyanese roots. Her first album, released in 2009, has been popular in Canada and the United Kingdom. With her participation in “We Are the World 25 for Haiti,” the all-star remake of the classic song, she is poised to become a rising star in the United States.

As night fell and the stage darkened, the crowd shrieked with anticipation for Keys. Since the release of her debut album in 2001, Songs in A Minor, all of her recordings have debuted at No. 1 on the charts, save one. Her fourth and latest album released at the end of the 2009, The Element of Freedom, was the first to break that trend, debuting at No. 2. Ironically, the album includes her biggest hit ever, “Empire State of Mind.” The song was also a huge hit for collaborator Jay-Z.

Keys’ last visit to the Bowl was a stripped-down solo show with just her and her pianos. For all but the most hard-core fans, it was a bit of a sleepy affair. The new tour exploded on the opposite spectrum of the live music experience, looking more like a Broadway or Las Vegas show. Even before the music started, massive state-of-the-art LED screens lit up with an array of images, and thunderous sounds began to emerge from the towering sound system.

The screens slowly peeled away on the darkened stage, and Keys was rolled out in a giant metal cage covered in large, sadomasochistic chains. She belted out her hit song “Love is Blind” in a smoke- and strobe light-induced haze. She broke free of her cage and the stage exploded in a massive light show, revealing Keys with an army of entertainers.

Backed by three dancers, three backup singers (all of whom went on to perform spectacular solo numbers), two percussionists, two keyboard players, and a bass and lead guitar player who would have made Jimi Hendrix stand up out of his seat, the ensemble released a wall of sound. The opening numbers were more reminiscent of a Metallica concert than the dainty image of Keys alone at her piano.

At one point early in the show, Keys donned a shoulder-strapped portable keyboard, similar to the one made famous by 1970s rock legend Edgar Winter (which he used to play mega hit “Frankenstein”). Although Keys’ version was modified into a shape of a large key, she played with much of the same ferocity and intensity as the former ‘70s star. When she began trading riffs with her hugely talented lead guitar player, I could close my eyes and see the ghost of many a metal keyboard legend nodding in approval.

Switching to a more modern set of electronic keyboards, Keys changed the tempo to a dance trance-like theme, complete with the wailing techno sounds popular in today’s electronic music. She then disappeared into the middle of her massive stage set, complete with elaborate staircase and flanked by huge lamp lights that rose from the floor. After a stunning crowd-pleasing solo by one of the backup singers, Keys emerged from the top of the stage in a flowing white gown. Looking like she was ready for a wedding reception, she slowly descended the stairs to meet her baby grand piano.

The piano — with its own LED graphics panels and synchronized by computer with the larger display panels — became the sole focus of her attention. As she launched into three sweet solo songs, they somehow seemed much more profound than her last solo performance at the Bowl. The intimate set, coming on the heels of the opening assault on the senses, was a perfectly timed interlude, showcasing her unbridled versatility.

Keys played “Pray for Forgiveness,” “Superwoman” and “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” with passion and grace. As she brought the crowd to its feet in yet another adoring ovation, she then challenged her audience to text the number flashing on the LED panels to donate money to her latest charity cause, Keep a Child Alive.

The pace picked up again as the band re-emerged and launched into a more soulful R&B tempo. Keys continued to belt out hits such as “If I Ain’t Got You.” She emerged triumphant before an ecstatic crowd for her encore performance of “Empire State of Mind.”

Click here to view the Santa Barbara Bowl’s recently updated Web site, designed to be much more interactive with the community. The venue also now has bicycle valet parking, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition. Click here for more information.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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