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Alicia Keys at the Santa Barbara Bowl

he R&B Singer Christened 2010’s Summer Concert Series on Wednesday

Paul Wellman

Wednesday night, Alicia Keys opened the season at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Go ahead and ignore that silly calendar date because summer is already here. With bright night skies mirroring Keys’s glimmering outfits, shimmering keys, and brilliant voice, the night was warm and clear and gorgeous.

Keys began the show in a cage, going super-literal with the theme of her latest album, The Element of Freedom. After magically melting the bars imprisoning her like some sort of Vegas sideshow act, against a backdrop of barbed wire, she declared, “My name is Alicia Keys, and I am the element of freedom!” Alright, we get it, get on with the music. And she did—mostly.

Throughout the show, distracting flat-screen panels projected images of all sorts of subtle freedom symbols, including Tiananmen Square, a burning, dripping human heart, a pair of Great Gatsby eyes, televisions, and Warhol via MacBook Photo Booth diptychs of Princess Diana and JFK. But if you closed your eyes to such distractions, you could still hear the “Flashing Lights,” in the form of a smooth Kanye sample on her Kanye-produced 2003 hit “You Don’t Know My Name.”

Keys went on to play hit after freaking hit, executing each beautifully and getting even the most conservative Santa Barbarans grinding on their neighbors during “Fallin’” and “I Need You.” In particular, “Diary” was a dead-sexy duet that featured a talented backup singer and showed off Keys’s smooth voice control and musicianship at the keys. (The LCD screen on her piano read, “Play me,” and she gracefully indulged its request.) We didn’t even miss Jack White that much when Keys delivered the solo version of their James Bond duet, “Another Way to Die.” Speaking of solos, no, Jay-Z didn’t show up. Neither did Beyoncé. (Not that we had our hopes up.)

Despite Jay’s absence, Keys closed out the show with everyone’s favorite PSA for New York City, “Empire State of Mind.” Framed by sweeping images of the Empire State Building at sunset, the Statue of Liberty, and other heartstring-tugging landmarks, Keys proved she does it best when she’s at the piano doing her thing and not trying to dance, seduce, or otherwise take part in cheesy concert gimmicks. (I’m looking at you, oversized key-shaped keytar.)

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