The Ladies First Tour is a
commendable effort to bring together some of the biggest female artists in
popular music today -- three names who've sold a combined total of some 30
The undeniable strength of this tour --which brought Missy Elliott,
Alicia Keys and headliner Beyonce Knowles to the Allstate Arena on Friday --
was its impressive musical diversity, melding hip-hop, R&B and pop under one
umbrella (sometimes all as part of one act).
Its weakness, however, was that none of these women was an unqualified
smash as a live performer, and each had weaknesses that should have been
remedied before they reached the arena level.
After a short and perfunctory opening by singer Tamia, superstar rapper
and producer Missy Elliott kicked things off with a high-energy half-hour
set that touched on most of her major hits, including "Pass the Dutch," "The
Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" and "Get Ur Freak On."
All of these were delivered in truncated versions, and the sound left a
lot to be desired, but Elliott tried to compensate with an abundance of
visuals. Her stage was designed to resemble a giant aquarium, and she was
surrounded by 14 dancers. But, as usual, it was her personality that was
The highlight of the evening came when Missy left the stage and made a
lap around the floor of the arena, rapping as she high-fived adoring fans
throughout the building.
Touring in support of her second album, "The Diary of Alicia Keys," the
celebrated singer-songwriter showed she has grown considerably as a
performer since I first saw her onstage at the Chicago Theatre the week she
released her debut album, "Songs in a Minor."
Keys still tries way too hard to impress with her musicianship: The nadir
of the set was when she paused to "conduct" her 11-piece band as if it was
an orchestra, and her piano playing isn't nearly as good as she would like
us to think it is. The mid-performance mini-set of solo piano was mostly a
bore after her bravura rendition of Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me."
It turns out that Keys is at her best not when she's tethered to her
instrument or trying to wow us with her vocal gymnastics, but when she's
vamping and tramping with her full-on diva act. Her most impressive moments
came when she let that big band cut loose and she just played the role of
the sultry front woman, shaking her charms at the front of the stage.
Coincidentally, these moments coincided with renditions of her biggest pop
hits, including "Fallin'" and "You Don't Know My Name."
When it came to the full-on pop diva routine, though, nobody topped
Beyonce. She arrived onstage like Cleopatra, borne on a bed carried atop the
shoulders of her slaves as she tossed rose petals to her fans. And things
just got sillier from there.
There were spouting geysers of fire, gold-sequin halter tops and
miniskirts, fake mid-set "behind the scenes" mini-documentaries shown on
multiple video screens, a furry swing that dangled from the air amid a
simulated star-lit nightscape and other spectacles too numerous too mention.
The shame of it all is that Beyonce is a genuine vocal talent -- a serious
singer with the range of a Whitney Houston or a Mariah Carey but the soulful
grit of an old-school Aretha Franklin. Unfortunately, on her first major
solo tour, she was paired with a way-too-slick band (at times, it coasted by
on four computer keyboards), and the emphasis was placed on the visuals
rather than the music.
She offered a perfunctory reading of one verse and one chorus of
"Survivor" by Destiny's Child to remind us where she came from, and she
performed all the songs her fans wanted -- "Naughty Girl," "Hip Hop Star,"
"Dangerously in Love." But it all seemed canned, pre-programmed,
choreographed and neatly packaged -- which, alas, it was.
In retrospect, the Ladies First Tour would have been much stronger if
each of the ladies had focused on their first-rate characteristics and
skipped the rest -- Missy stressing that exuberant personality and unique
charisma, Keys playing up that sultry appeal (while not overplaying her
hand) and Beyonce relying on her God-given talent (while leaving the
spectacular overkill to the Britney Spearses of the world, who need it much