'Ladies First' stars stress 2nd-rate skills


April 4, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


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 million albums.

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 most winning.

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 more).