Alicia Keys brings Keys To The Summer Tour to KFC Yum! Center
In any other week, Alicia Keys coming to Louisville would’ve been the talk of the town, but this week she had the unenviable position of following Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour by just a few days. It’s hard not to compare the two icons, both Black women with R&B roots who blew up in the early aughts and whose music and identities have helped shape American culture in the 21st century. They’ve recorded together, they’ve toured together, and less than a week before playing in Kentucky, they dined together. The difference in their success is one of scale. Despite her enormous successes, Keys has half the Grammy Awards that Beyoncé has collected, half the monthly listeners on Spotify, and is playing a venue with less than half the capacity. But if one were to expect less of a show because of these details, they’d be setting themselves up for a pleasant surprise.
The Keys to the Summer Tour has been promoted as a 360-degree, in-the-round experience, but that really doesn’t do it justice. The diamond-shaped stage at the center of the arena would’ve been enough to deliver on the experience promised, but there are also two runways extending out from each end of the stage that run lengthwise across the arena. One runway leads into a large staircase that carves into a lower section of seating, with another platform stage on top. Not only does this in-the-round design allow Keys to perform in 360-degrees to her audience, but it also gives her two walkways, a staircase, and a second stage to perform on. Sacrificing a few sections of seating to create a larger performance space is evidence of Keys’ intentional prioritization of intimacy over capacity, and this extra mobility ensured that every seat in the house had a good view of the artist. Even the cheapest seats felt unusually close for a large arena show.
The setlist leaned further into greatest hits territory than any individual album, which meant that fans got to hear popular singles from all of her albums (except for 2022’s Santa Baby, for obvious reasons). The show began appropriately with “Fallin’,” her massive debut single from 2001, which she sang while sauntering onto the stage to her piano. Keys wore a green pantsuit with wavy lines descending vertically — white on one side, and shades of green on the others. She had a matching green bra beneath the unbuttoned jacket and wore her hair tied back into a long braid decorated with dozens of sparkling hair clips. Keys swaggered and danced across the stage all night, considerately offering her attention to each section of the arena. Occasionally Keys would lock into her piano, but she never sat down. In fact she had no seat, instead choosing to maintain a power stance while playing with one foot resting on the elevated platform that her piano rests upon. Additionally, the portion of the stage with her piano on it slowly rotated to offer the entire arena a 360-degree view as she played.
Although Alicia Keys was clearly the star, it was the concept and staging of the production that allowed her talent to shine so brightly. To execute this Keys brought in prolific music video director Diane Martel. In addition to directing three of Keys’ own videos, Martel has crafted her own visual legacy in pop culture. She’s worked with everyone from Beyoncé and J-Lo to Wu-Tang Clan and Insane Clown Posse, but is perhaps best known now for directing the controversial “Blurred Lines” video with Robin Thicke, T.I. and Pharrell Williams. Working with Keys and Martel to conceive and execute their shared vision was Chiara Stephenson, a fabulously talented production designer whose past work has elevated performances from Lorde, Björk and Florence and the Machine. Their keen visual eyes added an extra layer to the performance, and the images displayed on the video monitors would at times look less like a live event taking place and more like a music video being filmed right before your eyes. Whether it was the blue laser pyramid formed around the center diamond stage or the circular halo light that descended and rotated, the production was notably and consistently impressive.
With the exception of a few solo features, Keys was supported throughout the night by a minimalist band of musicians who mostly stuck to the center diamond. When it came time to perform her 2004 Grammy Award winning single “My Boo,” Keys was joined by a male dancer who acted as a surrogate for her duet partner Usher. Shortly afterwards she climbed the staircase to her second stage where a hidden elevator allowed her to descend out of view, giving her dancer and her band time to flex in the spotlight. After the jam, Keys ascended from beneath the second stage with a new outfit and a new upright piano. Her costume change maintained the green color theme of her first outfit but with an added degree of glamor. Custom designed by Self-Portrait, the glistening green bodysuit featured a triangle window at her midriff and was complemented by a floor-length trench coat of the same design. Keys used this portion of the set to highlight the women in attendance, dedicating solo renditions of “A Woman’s Worth” and “Superwoman” to the ladies in the house while a montage of women’s faces displayed across the video screens.
Although the set was littered with hit songs from the past 20 years, it was the final stretch of the set that delivered the most excitement. In rapid succession, Keys ran through “Girl on Fire,” “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down,” “In Common,” “No One” and “If I Ain’t Got You.” If you added up the RIAA certifications for all of these songs then this section alone would be certified 23x Platinum. If you include ringtone sales and Jay-Z’s version of “Empire State of Mind” on which Keys sang the chorus, then it’s closer to 34x Platinum. This portion of the set even included a cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by Eurythmics, the only song of the night that she hasn’t recorded in the studio.
By the end of her hour and 45-minute performance, Alicia Keys had made abundantly clear why she’s a household name. The number of hits she’s had is staggering, and the charisma, talent and showmanship on display at the Keys to the Summer Tour is enough to silence any critic. Those who attended were treated to a more intimate experience than what’s being offered on the other headline-grabbing stadium tours this summer, and Keys puts forth a strong argument that sometimes, smaller can be better. Rather than relying on costume changes and big setpieces to dazzle the audience, Keys’ current tour proves that you can make just as big of an impact by polishing and refining your presentation to near perfection. In other words, it’s not the size of the stage that matters, but how you use it.
Of course, the real winner in all of this is the city and residents of Louisville. Not only were we fortunate enough to host two major musical icons in the same week, but both venues were completely packed and both artists made a point to compliment our collective voices while we sang along to their songs. Do crowds in Louisville really sound better than in other cities? Beyoncé said so, and Alicia Keys seemed similarly impressed by our harmonies. Pop star compliments may not be something we can take to the bank per sé, but it does reflect well on us as a city. Positive experiences for the artists that come here and the audiences that see them, plus strong ticket sales, suggests that Louisville’s future as a concert destination could be bright.