B-Sides gets personal with Alicia Keys, as she is, and examines the parallels between Metallica-worshippers Apocalyptica and Harptallica


She sings. She acts. She saves the world, or tries to, through her various charity efforts. And even Bob Dylan has noticed, and namechecked her in song.

But take note, Alicia Keys admirers: Even Superwoman is human and needs a break.

"[D]o I get overwhelmed? Absolutely, everybody gets overwhelmed," Keys says via phone from France, while on a break from the European leg of her current As I Am tour. "Are there days when I'm mad? 'I surely should have said no to one of these things, because this is just a bit too much.' Yes. But I try my best to really make choices for things that I truly love from a really pure place, and then it's not like you're angry about it.

"When I do music, I love it. When I'm doing any film I've chosen, it's because I love it. When I'm doing my annual Black Ball for Keep a Child Alive, it's because I love it. When I'm going to Africa on a pilgrimage, it's because I love the way that I can see the changes that have been made and I can see, firsthand, what is going on, so I know personally what needs to be made."

The aforementioned pilgrimage occurred in fall 2006. Keys was feeling burned out. Her grandmother had just passed away, and she was trying to juggle acting commitments with the demand for a new album. It would follow up her first two Grammy-winning efforts —which set a new standard for retro-soul — as well as her chart-topping Unplugged outing in 2005.

"It was a very difficult time that I was dealing with, and it just came to the point where I really needed to — basically, I just needed to run away, honestly," Keys admits.

"I mean, I'll tell you, when it came out I was on the phone with the travel agent and he was like, 'Where do you want to go?' 'Egypt,' it just came out of nowhere. And I was like, 'I want to sail down the Nile, I want to see the temples, the tombs and the pyramids. I want to be moved, I want to see something I've never seen before.' And it turned out to be the best choice that I've ever made."

Inspired to create music as timeless as the wonders she saw on holiday, Keys summoned co-writers like John Mayer and song doctress Linda Perry to create As I Am, an album she's described as "Janis Joplin meets Aretha Franklin."

"I just took all these restrictions off myself and all of these kind of rules and regulations and ways that I was used to creating and all this crap and threw it out the window," she adds of the album, which hit No. 1 on release last November. "And I just allowed myself to be vulnerable and free and open and it created some of the best music I've ever created yet."

Keys, who has had roles in Smokin' Aces and the upcoming The Secret Life of Bees, says she's "so serious" about acting that she feels especially choosy about the roles she takes. But as she also says, "I don't think I have to choose" between music and film.

"I think that they're both very fantastic ways to be creative and tell life's many, many stories," she says, "and I would love to be able to do that for as long as I live."
— Dan LeRoy

7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 26. Scottrade Center, 1401 Clark Avenue. $37 to $97.50. 314-421-4400.

Tributica Bandica
No genre has fans as wildly enthusiastic as metal — and no metal band has a fan base as feverishly devoted to it as Metallica. In the '80s, the quartet perfected the formula for modern metal with the perfect amount of riffs, solos and vocal hooks to appease musicians and non-musicians alike. Almost every teenager who has ever picked up a six-string during his awkward phase has tried to hammer out "Enter Sandman."

This fascination with playing Metallica songs has ocassionally transcended the traditional band format, resulting in tributes whose instrumentation itself shows a level of creativity not seen in Metallica in over a decade. This week B-Sides examines Apocalyptica and Harptallica, two bands that are paying homage to Metallica the best ways they know how.

The shtick: Apocalyptica is a "Finnish cello metal band." Harptallica is a female harp duo. They have both made their names by performing instrumental versions of Metallica songs on their seemingly un-metal instruments.

Most Metallica-tastic album: Apocalyptica's Plays Metallica by Four Cellos is its only album exclusively comprised of Metallica covers. Harptallica has one record to date, 2007's Harp 'Em All.

Strengths: The cellos of Apocalyptica, which are often distorted and accompanied by a drum set, bite just as hard as James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett's guitars. The range of the instrument allows the band to re-create shredding solos as well as driving bass lines, maintaining the energy of the original songs. Harptallica chooses to mellow the BPMs, using its gut strings to create serene, floaty renditions of Metallica's generally thrashy compositions. The slower tempos would probably make Lars Ulrich cringe, but they bring out the harmonic complexity of a song like "Master of Puppets."

Weaknesses: When Apocalyptica plays original material with guest vocalists (specifically their current single, "I'm Not Jesus" with Slipknot's Corey Taylor), its guitar-emulating cello trick works too well, masking the band's charm (in case you didn't know, it has cellos) and resulting in a nü-metal disaster. The slow, dramatic harps of Harptallica also tend to work too well, occasionally turning Metallica into Muzak. The band's rendition of "The Unforgiven" could easily be background music for a dinner party or a hotel lobby.

Bottom line: Apocalyptica, like the band it initially set out to honor, peaked early and has suffered as a result of its restlessness and a possible fear of repeating itself. The band may have begun with a Kill 'Em All-level of ingenuity, but its horrendous new original material lands it somewhere between the alternative-metal trainwrecks Load and ReLoad. We can only pray to the gods of metal (Lemmy?) that Apocalyptica returns to what it knows best before making a St. Anger of its own.

In the long run, Harptallica is still a new band trying to find its voice in the unconventional Metallica tribute scene. Let's compare the band to Ride the Lightning. Harptallica has a sound, and it knows what works, but it has a few kinks to work out before making a focused, Master of Puppets-esque statement. It may be sentencing some tunes to a lifetime in the elevator, but it may also be one virtuosic harp-shred away from greatness.
— Ryan Wasoba

Apocalyptica plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 24, at Pop's, 1403 Mississippi Avenue, Sauget, Illinois. $22. 618-274-6720. Harptallica plays at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, at the Underground at Red Sea, 6511 Delmar Boulevard, University City. 314-863-0099. Also plays at 5 p.m. at Vintage Vinyl, 6610 Delmar Boulevard, University City. Free. 314-721-4096.

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