Last Night: Alicia Keys at Toyota Center

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Alicia Keys Toyota Center March 18, 2013

In concert, Alicia Keys projects such focus and command over her domain, the stage, it can be intimidating to witness up close. One would hate to be a backup dancer and step out of line.

But she can also perform with an exquisite vulnerability, the kind of whispery musical pillow talk better suited to jazz clubs and listening rooms than sports arenas. That she is comfortable expressing such intimacy in front of large crowds of people says a lot about why she has become a star.

Keys is certainly no stranger to corporate endorsements, TV appearances and magazine covers, but she has never really seemed to court pop stardom the way someone like Beyoncé has. She's never needed to. In her case -- an exceedingly rare one these days -- sheer talent is enough.

Monday night at Toyota Center, Keys delivered a 90-minute set that was highly choreographed but never felt staged. When not seated or standing at a variety of keyboards, she prowled the stage with a retinue of well-dressed dancers and even allowed two of her backup singers to trot out the venerable Marvin Gaye/Tami Terrell standard "You're All I Need to Get By."

Seeing how hard she had been working it the entire time, the break was well-deserved.

The show, about an even mix of R&B ballads and reggae-flavored pop production numbers, opened with a little Sinatra and a video NYC cityscape that zoomed into a brownstone, which kicked off "Karma." In this strutting tune that scoffs at an ex with a side of glowering string sounds, Keys set a tone that this was her night, on her terms, but of course that her audience was encouraged to participate.

Keys revealed just how much she was prepared to share on the very next song, "You Don't Know My Name," a daydream about an anonymous crush whom she does eventually break down and call. Monday it became pure reverie as her piano notes piled up.

So did "Like You'll Never See Me Again," which illuminated a ballerina in front of a full moon (it sounds cheesy but it wasn't, really) and "Unthinkable," during which Keys divided her time between her upright piano and a pas de deux with a lone male dancer. She stuck a few lines from Ready For the World's "Love You Down" into "Diary," making for an amusing old-school moment.

But sometimes you've got to put down the diary and cut loose. The sultry "A Woman's Worth" teased the famous 007 riff -- though Keys and Jack White's Quantum of Solace Bond theme "Another Way to Die" went unheard -- among some Bob Fosse-style dancing, and the coolly seductive tango "Listen to Your Heart" echoed Wham's forlorn "Everything She Wants." Accented by by sitar sounds from somewhere in the wings where her band lurked all night, "Limitedless" threatened to become a full-on Bollywood number.

But no matter if she's losing herself in new love in "Fallin," uncomfortably moving on with the strapping melody of "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," or finding some gospel uplift in "Tears Always Win," Keys has always figured out ways to come out on top in her songs. Her newest examples, recent singles "Girl On Fire" and "Brand New Me" brought Monday's set to a climax.

Being a girl on fire, Keys explained to the crowd, means "We're able to live life on our own path, that no one can box us in."

She's done pretty well with that so far, looks like.

Personal Bias: Approve.

The Crowd: Not quite as full as Eric Clapton, but mostly full. Couples, quite a few girl's nights and a very nice mother and daughter who drove from Beaumont and scored fourth-row seats the day of the show. They adored Alicia Keys.

Overheard In the Crowd: "I'm in a meeting" - guy on the phone outside the men's room; no idea what that's all about

Random Notebook Dump: Opener Miguel is a curious young thing, going for some sort of post-Usher computerized R&B and using as much keyboards as your average Animal Collective or Radiohead album. Here he is now.

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