Alicia Keys walked the walk at Friday’s Curebound Concert for Cures with the San Diego Symphony

Alicia Keys, Nov. 4, 20200 at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
Alicia Keys is shown during her Friday Curebound benefit concert at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. She was joined by her band and members of the San Diego Symphony.
(Courtesy photo by Ramon Rivas)

The unannounced benefit show by the 15-time Grammy Award winner, a day before her concert at Viejas Arena, raised $3.1 million for the year-old San Diego nonprofit


It is not uncommon for music stars performing benefit concerts to give a shout-out or two to the cause they are supporting.

But Alicia Keys did far more than just pay lip service to Curebound — the year-old San Diego nonprofit that funds groundbreaking cancer research — during her private, unadvertised Friday-night benefit performance at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

She demonstrated her commitment near the start and near the finish of her 13-song performance, for which Keys was accompanied by her five-piece band and 31 members of the San Diego Symphony, ably led by guest conductor Sean O’Loughlin.

During her second number, the simultaneously playful and yearning “You Don’t Know My Name,” she changed the lyrics in the song’s spoken interlude. That interlude takes place during a mock phone call to a love interest named “Michael” and Keys delivered it with a new twist tailor-made for the evening.

“Am I going to see you at the Curebound concert?” the 15-time Grammy Award winner asked the unseen “Michael” during her Friday rendition of “You Don’t Know My Name,” a song from “The Diary of Alicia Keys,” her second album.

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“So, are you coming to the concert?” she continued, speaking to “Michael,” as the crowd of 2,500 cheered. “Because, if you are, I really want to make sure you text ‘Cure’ to 325-603-3395.”

Ten songs later, before performing her encore of “If I Ain’t Got You,” Keys’ chart-topping 2004 hit, the piano-playing singer and songwriter explained her connection with Curebound.

Her paternal grandmother died from the disease in 2006. The San Diego nonprofit, which marks its first anniversary this month, has already awarded $23 million in 90 grants to companies doing innovative cancer-cure research.

“There are so many of us who have been affected by cancer,” said Keys, who is scheduled to perform tonight — minus the symphony members — at SDSU’s Viejas Arena.

“My nana passed from cancer,” she continued. “So, it is really, really meaningful for me, this work Curebound is doing. Because we don’t want to have to wear any more ‘F--- cancer’ T-shirts ... We know what we have to do.”

The concert was a triumph for Curebound, which raised $3.1 million Friday and counts Fernanda Whitworth and Amy and Bill Koman among its founders.

It was a triumph for The Shell, which on Oct. 24 hosted a private surprise concert by Billy Joel — who, like Keys, is a New York City native.

And it was a triumph for Keys, who lives (at least part of the year) in La Jolla with her husband, music producer Swizz Beatz, and their two sons.

Alicia Keys, center, Norelle Simpson, left, Justin C. Gilbert, Nov. 4 2022
Alicia Keys, center, is shown performing at Friday’s Curebound benefit concert at The Shell with backing singer Norelle Simpson, left, and guitarist Justin C. Gilbert, right.
(Ramon Rivas)

Finding her groove

After a slow start on a chilly night — the temperature dipped to 55 degrees — Keys found her groove and brought the crowd to its feet with her sixth selection, a rousing rendition of her 2009 hit, “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down.”

Standing at the grand piano she played off and on throughout the night, she introduced “Empire” as a “song about hope; we had to sing it tonight.” Her spirited vocals, a thumping beat and the orchestra’s sweeping flourishes were a potent combination.

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Equally good was “Girl On Fire,” Keys’ aptly titled 2012 ode to embracing one’s inner strength. Better still was her blues-steeped signature number, “Fallin’,” a surging, Nina Simone-flavored ballad built on the instrumental vamp from James Brown’s 1966 classic, “It’s a Man’s World.”

Keys sang with infectious fervor throughout “Fallin’.” At five minutes, it was her longest selection. It was also the only one to showcase — if far too briefly — her ability to combine dazzling, classically inspired piano runs with a jazz artist’s sense of harmonic adventure.

On the reggae-tinged “Underdog,” Keys enthusiastically traded vocals with backing singer Norelle Simpson, while — earlier — the perky “December Back to June” offered a preview of Keys’ just-out first Christmas album (the debut release on her new record label). The noir-ish ballad “Nat King Cole” was the only song included from “Keys,” her daring, envelope-pushing 2021 double-album.

The 15-time Grammy Award winner, now a La Jolla resident, will perform her first concert here of the decade at SDSU

Friday’s hour-long concert was Keys’ first at The Shell. But it was not her first time at the venue. She and her husband attended the August 2021 “Illmatic” concert there by New York rapper Nas and the San Diego Symphony.

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Her performance was also notable for what Keys did not do.

She didn’t leave the stage to change her stage attire. She barely mentioned her new album. And, apart from some fleeting electronic vocal sweetening on a few choruses, she sang live — as evidenced by the few notes she didn’t quite hit and the audible breaths she took.

In an era where it is not at all uncommon for established and rising vocal stars alike to mime much or all of their performances, hearing Alicia Keys sing, at times, less than perfectly brought a welcome human dimension to her Curebound benefit concert. It was a welcome reminder of the value of hearing real emotions expressed in music in real time.