Alicia Keys burst into the public eye at age 20 with a mega-selling debut that nabbed an armload of Grammys. That was 12 years ago, an eternity in pop music, but she’s defied the odds, remaining relevant and popular without trying on ill-fitting new poses or abandoning what got her there in the first place. That’s remarkable by itself, but Wednesday night at Agganis Arena, she raised the possibility that she hasn’t even peaked yet.
A quartet of male dancers flanked Keys as she took the stage to the ominous pounding of “Karma,” but she used them sparingly throughout the night. It was the right call; rather than forcing her into choreographed lockstep, they provided an occasional flurry of activity that she could join long enough to reenergize and then be spun back into the spotlight. For all the drama playing out behind her during “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” — in which one of her dancers silently addressed a vacant chair before Keys joined him in a brief pas de deux — she refused to be overtaken by spectacle.
She saved that for the emotion of her material. “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” was vulnerable, “You Don’t Know My Name” was sweetly seductive, and “Un-Thinkable” mixed the two. Her most chilling song was “101,” a dark ballad buoyed by nothing more than Keys’s piano and the clear-eyed dismissal in her voice, which was focused, strong, and defiant. She followed it with a blistering “Fallin’,” ending on a triumphant pose echoing the logo of Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label.
Even a hint of self-seriousness could have deflated everything, but Keys sustained a lightness throughout, whether on the bedroom jam “Fire We Make,” the throwback soul of “Tears Always Win,” or the victory march of “Girl on Fire.” “Empire State of Mind” closed the show on a fitting note for the singer: graceful, generous, and brimming with still-untapped possibility.
Miguel opened with 45 minutes of R&B begging, pleading, coaxing, and cajoling, and though he performed with gratitude (if not quite humility), he also had the self-assured confidence to sing as though the audience was his alone.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at space