Alicia Keys’s Live Taping of MTV Unplugged

Alicia Keys's Live Taping of MTV Unplugged

Alicia Keys

When complimentary tickets come, I go. That’s a rule. So when my mother’s cousin’s wife’s niece’s best friend — who I had been told I must meet — called to say she had an extra ticket to a taping of Alicia Keys doing MTV’s Unplugged, I had to go. What I didn’t know at the time was that MTV had tentatively placed the Unplugged series on hold and that this show was its triumphant return. What I did know at the time, and was at first pleased to find out, was that the taping was near my apartment taking place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, a gorgeous, old, peeling edifice that seats an intimate 900. To see Keys, Best Female R&B Artist at the 2005 BET Awards, without thousands of fans in my way seemed like a nice way to spend a Thursday evening. (And, of course, attending alongside a “wonderful young lady” was sure to make my mother very happy.) But, because the show was being taped in a new venue, it had been so long since the MTV crew had put together an Unplugged, and because Keys and Co. were not used to unplugging it in the first place it was a night of many false-starts and a handful of retakes. But it was also a night of some surprisingly, seriously sweet music. The strangest thing about attending a taping of this “live” show is that a large man with headphones was the opening act. Mr. Stage Manager, or whoever the hell he was (he rudely failed to give us his name) opened the show with a little ditty called “I Will Teach the Crowd How to Clap.” He danced around and waved his arms, we sat up like trained seals and chip-chip-chipped our hands together to achieve exactly the speed and volume he desired. At least he didn’t hold signs that said “Applaud Now.” Ultimately, though, the practice was swell and when the music started the clapping cues were pretty obvious. After the raucous opening (I mean, it did get a standing ovation), Keys took the stage. Standing in outrageous high-heels, but seeming to inhabit the body of an actual human (this was no Mini-Me Avril Aguilera), Alicia looked good. And, as her gruff, earthy laugh spilled over the audience, she made us all feel good. Ah, I thought contentedly. A performer. Then, and throughout the taping, Keys clearly knew how to look at a crowd while still seeing individuals; how to hear a group and respond to people. From her first moments out front, to her last “Goodnight ya’ll,” Keys was warm, quirky, and connected “for reals” to her audience. This came in handy when the music stopped, or restarted, or repeated, time and time again. When it came to her singing, Keys displayed an obvious gift. Though much has been made of her “classical training” and her “piano skills,” it is her voice, thick and husky, that makes her worth hearing. At the taping, though the acoustics — presumably optimized for recording and not for the live experience — were a tad tinny, her tunes were carried convincingly. Beneath both her most clichéd R&B vocal acrobatics and her most honest, soulful crooning, her backing band stayed as tight as a violin’s high-E. This backbone gave her plaintive expressiveness a flawlessly professional sound. While the performance of Keys’s hit songs – including the undeniably classic “If I Ain’t Got You” – were without blemish, and even artfully re-arranged (the necessary product of two years of nonstop touring, for sure). Her new songs, several of which were unveiled this evening, were fresh and pleasantly catchy. Even when performed a second time, the new tune “Unbreakable” kept the audience tapping, waving and gyrating in their seats. Of course, half the audience seemed to know Alicia, or at least know someone who knew her, and the feeling that she was a favorite pitcher playing a long awaited home-game couldn’t be avoided. More than once, she looked into the audience and said “Hey You! How’sit going?” to some friend/acquaintance/lover/aunt. So it wasn’t entirely a surprise, though it was exciting, when a handful of Keys’s “friends” showed up and got on stage to help her sing the finale. As Common, Mos Def, and Ziggy Marley ran down the aisles, they made quite a stir (the crowd didn’t need coaching; they went crazy on their own) and helped perform one riotous medley. From Common’s topical freestyle intro, to Def’s deliciously curious chorus, and through Marley’s funky reggae bridge it sounded nothing like the rest of the show – and it was the most vibrant song of the set list. When the crowd got to their feet for an ovation, Mr. Stage Manager was nowhere to be seen. Despite the awkwardness of TV cameras swooping around the orchestra, the necessity that everything sound flawless on tape, and Keys & Co.’s unfamiliarity with TV protocol, it was a show that lived up to the intimate potential of the venue. And for something that cost nothing and made my mother happy, it really could not have been a more perfect evening.