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Correction to This Article
An April 18 Style review incorrectly said that R&B singer John Legend is 25. He is 26.

Alicia Keys: Talent To Burn

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page C01

In today's vainglorious pop universe, rife as it is with bimbos, himbos and ego freaks, young R&B marvels Alicia Keys and John Legend are unique, humble throwbacks. The sweet-singing, piano-playing soulsters have managed to move millions of albums and thrill just as many fans all by emphasizing talent over titillation, class over crass.

Keys and Legend, together on an inspired double bill at Constitution Hall Saturday, also proved during their two-hour-plus event that along with keeping it clean and stressing showmanship, they're also two of the lava-hot sexiest people burning up the boards today. So remember this lesson, impressionable young people: Less is more. And, well, more is Britney. And you don't want to turn out like Britney, do you?

John Legend wrote a smart chapter at the piano as the opening act for Alicia Keys's "Diary" tour Saturday at Constitution Hall. (Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)

Oh Lord, are Keys and Legend hot -- in all sorts of ways. "Get Lifted," Legend's 2004 debut, has gone platinum and then some, partly because of help from his mentor, eccentric rapper Kanye West, but mainly because of his own smooth croon and soulful songwriting. Think of the 25-year-old rookie as Stevie Wonder with hip-hop flair. In February the classically trained Keys won four Grammys for her 2003 sophomore effort, "The Diary of Alicia Keys," further evidence that, at 24, she's unrivaled at blending piano eloquence with street-smart edge.

Dressed in a black suit, blue shirt and matching pocket square, the tall, thin Legend -- up until recently, choir director at Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pa. -- took the stage first, swaying behind a center-stage keyboard. His seven-piece backing band, which included both a rock-ready guitarist and an old-school turntablist, shifted from funk to soul to classic R&B, enthusiastically following Legend through a 35-minute tour of the best parts of his album.

On "Let's Get Lifted," which strutted along on a wicked bass line, Legend (born John Stephens) tilted his head back and howled, showing off both a dynamite falsetto and a trilly Bob Marley yelp. Legend gave winking props to the Motown sound on "She Don't Have to Know," a grooving ode to the slick side of cheating that charmed despite its devilish intent. And Legend certainly didn't need any digital vocal help on the show-stopping ballad "Ordinary People." Wow. After that dazzler -- like Keys, Legend sounds just as good live -- the crowd couldn't help but stand and scream.

Unfortunately, Legend -- who provided backing vocals on "The Diary of Alicia Keys" -- never joined his headlining pal during her 90-minute performance. Not that she had room for him up there. Keys stuffed her elaborate set with eight tuxedoed band members, a chandelier, a lounge chair, a dinner table and a sleek white piano that spun, glided across the stage and, for the finale, rose 10 feet off the ground. Her show's rollicking theme was "Uptown Saturday Night," a time-tripping nod to circa-1930s Harlem nightclubs. (A poster of Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club acted as part of the backdrop.)

Keys (born Alicia Cook) played the part of vintage cocktail crooner, too, her hair in a twisty bun, her va-va-voomish red pantsuit adorned with sparkles and revealing a whooole lotta back. Yeah, the Manhattan native did some shaking and some shimmying, some hip swaying and some rump bumping, but all through the fun she made darn sure her band was tight and together at all times.

The music is the thing, dontcha know?

Such is Keys's prodigious ear for blending styles and eras that she was able to inject raucous big-band swing into such hip-hop faves as "Jane Doe," from debut disc "Songs in A Minor," and the new "Karma," all without losing an audience eager to sing along to the hits. After "Heartburn," which seamlessly shifted from jazzy jump-up to hip-hop head-nodder, she wasn't the only one in the house slick with sweat.

A graduate of Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts High School, Keys was at her entertaining best seated behind her trusty piano. She spent as much time playing her instrument as playing to the crowd. "How many real men are out there tonight?" she teased at one point. (Murmur, murmur.) "Okay, now where are my real, strong, independent women?" (Eeeeeeeee!)

Having a blast throughout, Keys stretched out the Prince-penned lament "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" to hammy cabaret-night excess. ("You know, I've been singing this song for three years and he still hasn't called me yet." Rim shot!) But when it was time for her to unleash her signature stunners -- "Fallin' ," "You Don't Know My Name" and the insta-classic "If I Ain't Got You" -- she uncorked 'em straight and strong, her rafter-raising voice rising and falling but never resorting to histrionic extremes. No frills, just the truth.

Now that's hot.

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