TAMPA — Alicia Keys is really good at her job. Almost too good at her job.
She's a striver, a piano-pounding prodigy, a double-take knockout. At 27, she's already on her way to R&B icon status, but you get the feeling she'd excel at anything. If Alicia Keys worked in the cubicle next to you, you'd probably hate her. (But you'd also want to be her. Or at least date her.)
Keys' three studio albums — including her latest, 2007's As I Am — have been increasingly smooth, polished, sublime. But something has ultimately been missing. And now we know what:
As the New York City native proved at the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday, in front of a small, passionate crowd of 7,201, she's even better onstage, displaying a vulnerable, not-perfect-after-all side that makes her even more appealing.
As far as I'm concerned (if it's not gushingly apparent by now), Keys is peerless in the current pop universe. She's touring with two of the hotter radio acts these days, but no matter how charming those also-rans might be, opening for Keys remains a brutal assignment.
First up was Jordin Sparks, last year's American Idol champ. The tall teen has a smile that could shatter a 60-watt bulb. But Sparks was swallowed by a major stage and a four-piece band.
Not only does R&B hunk Ne-Yo write his own hits (So Sick), but he's penned smashes for Beyonce (Irreplaceable) and Rihanna (Unfaithful). He's a talented dude, but he's still learning the live game. Taking the stage in top hat and tails, he wanted to do something different, but his voice and his material ultimately lacked distinction.
Two minutes into Keys' two-hour set, however, those openers felt like another show altogether.
The best place to see Keys will always be a small, quiet club. The next best place? Anywhere you can catch her, people.
With her stage looking like a futuristic Cotton Club, Keys entered the venue on a spinning baby grand, her weapon of choice awash in wisps of smoke. She pounded out an intricate mix of classical pomp and hip-hop stomp, then stood to shake and strut and wail.
Dressed in a frilly top, kapow! pants and sparkly heels, Keys was a constant showstopper. With her 10-piece band and frolicky dancers behind her, she gave frisky girl-group oomph to You Don't Know My Name and the new Teenage Love Affair. She posed and vamped and pretended to be Beyonce.
"All my life I've had people telling me that I should take it off more," she said after that flurry of sass. "But I wanted to do something different. I just wanted to play my piano!"
And that's when a fun show turned fantastic.
Waving her band goodbye, Keys took a seat behind her sleek black piano and instantly turned a huge venue into an intimate parlor. If her voice sounded good at the start, hoo boy, the girl gave goose bumps when she was all by her lonesome, that smoky, soulful way percolating from sultry to rafter-rattling ferocious.
First up was the new Sure Looks Good to Me. But what followed was the song of the night, Prince's How Come You Don't Call Me, a smoldering, darkly comic tale of a lover who just won't dial her digits. Before spitting the song's final line, Keys stood up and stared into the crowd with a mock-exasperated leer. The place went nuts — and then she sat back down and blew 'em all away.
She would alternate between big blowout numbers (Wreckless Love, Go Ahead, Karma) and softer, sweeter fare (a cover of Tender Love, the current smash Like You'll Never See Me Again, Fallin'). But no matter what she was doing, whether she was sitting or grooving, you couldn't take your eyes off her.
Keys' biggest sing-along of the night might have been for new song, Superwoman, another stunner she performed alone on piano. The heroic track may sound like a boast, a brag. But let's be honest: It's also the truth.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.