Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Review: Alicia Keys keeps it classy at the 2019 Dubai Jazz Festival

The American R&B singer gave a solid performance, but still seemingly struggles to feel comfortable when delivering large gigs

Alicia Keys performs at the 2019 Dubai Jazz Festival held at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre. Pawan Singh / The National
Alicia Keys performs at the 2019 Dubai Jazz Festival held at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre. Pawan Singh / The National

Those wondering what to expect from Alicia Keys at the 2019 Dubai Jazz Festival on Friday night would only have had to check out her hosting gig at the Grammy Awards last month.

The 38-year-old singer-songwriter was not so much a participant in that ceremony – bravura music performance, aside – but more of an enchanting presence.

She didn’t move the show along, instead she just hovered around the edges like a cloud, sending good vibes to an industry rocked with a seemingly endless stream of scandals.

She wasn’t exciting, but that was the point, I suppose. Organisers wanted stability; an adult in the room, so to speak – and Keys fits that bill.

Once you know that, then her solid – yet ultimately uninspiring –show at the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre last night is not so much of a surprise or disappointment.

After the visceral rock charge of Northern Ireland’s Snow Patrol on Wednesday, followed by the disco giddiness of the UK crew Jamiroquai on Thursday, the New Yorker brought the festival to a lull – but it was a classy one all the same.

Flick through the gallery below to see more photos of the second night of the 2019 Dubai Jazz Festival, during which Alicia Keys, Reuben James and Swing Revue performed.

Torn between the jazz clubs and arenas

Backed by her seven-piece band, Keys breezed through an 80-minute set full of hits and fan favourites, and was heavy on messages of love and self-empowerment throughout.

While the songs and vibes were enough to illicit a warm and fuzzy feeling from an adoring crowd, it didn’t ultimately result in a memorable show.

A lot of that is down to Keys not yet being comfortable as a big-stage performer. While her transition from intimate clubs and theatres to arenas as a festival headline act is deserved, her shows have yet to catch up with the times.

2019 Dubai Jazz Festival

Dressed in a splendid checked outfit and black church hat, Keys seems torn between those two worlds. This is emphasised in tracks such as Unbreakable and You Really Don’t Care, where she gingerly moves back and forth from the piano to the front of the stage in full diva mode. It happens a few times and it saps all of the energy out of the show. It seems forced and unnecessary, particularly when you know that Keys much prefers to sit behind the piano.

When she does sit there, and allows her stirring songs to speak for themselves, the show transforms into a beautiful, soulful affair.

Keys’ joy while playing was positively infectious in the swaggering opener to 28 Thousand Days. Keys grooved along, as six Emirati percussionists played their instruments, which included the daf and darbuka, with intensity. The sounds snapped and crackled and rang out like fireworks in the night's sky.

Her solo performance of If I Ain't Got You was full of evocative jazzy phrasing (her formidable chops as an instrumentalist were highlighted by a piano cam), while the hip-hop vibes of Fallin' were not lost, thanks to Keys' DJ on the beats.

New songs

Those wondering what Keys has been up to lately in the studio would have savoured the new cut of Raise a Man – an intimate piano ballad on the challenges of motherhood. It formed a lovely counterpoint to the anthemic Superwoman, a track bigger in sound (the band returned for this one) and lyrical outlook, courtesy of its overarching message of female empowerment.

By the time the finale rolled around, and she belted out Empire of State of Mind and No One, the crowd was very happy indeed with Keys' assured performance.

Like her Grammy Awards hosting gig, Keys kept her Dubai jazz fest slot classy. If you are a die-hard fan, you would have been spell-bound. Yet, for a regular concert experience, it fell a tad short.

A successful festival for new promoters

Earlier that evening, the crowd were treated to a performance by support act Reuben James. Respected in the industry as an in-demand song-writer (he co-wrote four tracks in Sam Smith’s 2017 album The Thrill of it All), James enjoyed the opportunity to showcase his jazz-pop solo sound to a receptive audience.

The festival marks a successful first-time effort by Done Events. The Dubai company, which is behind popular music events such as RedFest DXB and Blended, did a fine job of maintaining the musical quality and relaxed vibe that has made the Dubai Jazz Festival a key player on the UAE music calendar for the last 17 years.

Updated: February 23, 2019 12:25 PM

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