NEW YORK When Alicia Keys and Maxwell played to a sold-out hometown crowd at the City Center on Friday, it didn't seem to matter to anyone that Keys the reigning queen of the Billboard albums chart was billed as the opening act.
Both singers received equal love from the audience (which included legendary R&B duo Ashford & Simpson and rapper Nas) especially the women. Keys because the women could relate to her; Maxwell because the women wanted to have relations with him. (Click for photos from Friday's show.)
The 20-year-old Keys, whose Songs in A Minor debuted at #1 and currently sits at #2, wore a black halter-top, black hat and blue jeans. After her shimmying, energetic hype man warmed up the crowd for Keys' and Maxwell's fourth in a string of five NYC shows, she slowed the pace down, highlighting her vocal skills on "Troubles." "All your troubles babaaayyy/ You just have to let it go," she sang with fervor, sitting down and stroking the keyboard. "All your hustles ain't for nothing/ You just have to take it slow."
Keys, who was backed by a band and three singers, then put a little sass into her act with "Jane Doe." Standing up with her hand on her hip, Keys sang in a jazzy, scatlike tone, "Caught you trying to check my man out/ Can you 'splain what that's all about?" over a hip-hop breakbeat.
"Stop that," she ordered her band before finishing the song. "I don't want to talk about Jane Doe. I want to talk about what we got in here: real women!
"Where are all my real men?" she asked, eliciting barks of "Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!"
After a little more call-and-response interaction, Keys began her r-e-s-p-e-c-t ballad "A Woman's Worth." "You could buy me diamonds/ You can buy me pearls," she soulfully spouted in a high-pitched voice.
"A real man knows a real woman when he see her," she continued before throwing off her hat, revealing long, beaded braids.
"Throw it to me!" yelled a man in the audience.
After crooning her acclaimed single, "Fallin'," Keys told of a night with her boyfriend that was interrupted by a ringing phone. She said her man took the phone in the bathroom, and she followed him and knocked on the door.
"I don't mean to be interrupting and sh...," she acted out.
Keys explained to the audience that her boyfriend had defended his actions by saying the person on the other end of the phone was just a female buddy. This segued perfectly into "Girlfriend."
Her hype man came out to assist, mimicking the sample of Ol' Dirty Bastard's voice on the song, "Yeah, yeah, what." As her sidekick danced, Keys sang about jealousy. "You said that she's the one who helped you see how deep you're in love with me/ Intentions were not to get in bee-tween, but I see possibilities." With the crowd, now mostly dancing and singing along, she sang a variation of Stevie Wonder's "That Girl" on the breakdown before leaving.
Of course, Keys could not perform in the town she was raised in without an encore. After a Michael Jackson imitation by her hype man, she returned to sit at the keys to sing her "favorite song," Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free."
Passion, sensuality and unabashed exploitation of his sex-symbol status marked Maxwell's set. You couldn't be mad, though he was only giving the ladies what they came to see.
Simply dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he gyrated, humped the floor, danced and backed his thang up while performing such numbers as the high-energy opener "Get to Know Ya," his playful lovemaking anthem "Sumthin' Sumthin'" and the ultra-funky title track to his latest album, Now.
Although he controlled the crowd with his fast-paced hits, Maxwell received the loudest adoration for his ballads. His opening murmur from the first seconds of "This Woman's Work" made the audience rise to its feet as if somebody had pulled a fire alarm. Singing most of the song in a high pitch, Maxwell earned a standing ovation as he dropped to his knees to finish the song: "I should be crying, but I just can't let it go/ Just make it go away."
"Y'all know this?" he asked with a smile while performing "... Til the Cops Come Knockin'." "I gonna spread you out," he declared, throwing the mic stand on the floor and making the ladies swoon. He didn't need to sing much more of the song because the audience did it for him.
"Fortunate" was another big crowd-pleaser. Toward the end of the song, he switched the beat and turned the ballad into a disco song, asking, "Where my dogs at?"
"Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" was the night's capper. "You were a dream that just should not have been," he sang over the speaker-shaking bass. "You made me feel good and feel nice/ And feel love, gave me paradise."
Ending on this note made it easier for the audience to exit, since the song had motivated many of them to escape the confines of their seats and dance in the aisles. The tour ends October 9 in Detroit.