Sade, John Legend Toyota Center July 23, 2011
See more smooth operation from Sade & John Legend in our slideshow.
As word of Amy Winehouse's death spread across the Internet Saturday, another British soul singer was preparing to perform in Houston for the first time in about a decade. And there, so it would seem, the similarities between Sade Adu and Winehouse end - two women who shared a hometown, a fondness for saxophones and little else.
But perhaps not. Although Adu keeps her personal affairs as private as Winehouse did not - by her own choosing or fiat of Britain's notoriously ravenous tabloid editors - both women's music trafficks in the kind of powerful, even painful intimacy that convinces listeners that they actually know these people. And, even more importantly, that the singers know them.
Whether or not that intimacy stems from events in their offstage lives doesn't matter. It was (for Winehouse) and has been (Sade) convincing enough to make both women the equivalent of rock stars, with attendant album and ticket sales, in a genre that does not produce too many.
In fact, Winehouse's death went completely unremarked upon Saturday night, by Sade or anyone else. The news was still filtering across the Atlantic, and the full house at Toyota Center was adept at using their smartphones for photography, but Aftermath did not spy a whole lot of tweeting or even texting going on.
The nearest anyone came to acknowledging what had happened was not very near at all: John Legend opened up the show with a doo-wop gospel cover of Adele's smash "Rolling In the Deep." Monday, Adele wrote that Winehouse "paved the way for artists like me" on her blog, Rolling Stone reported.
Overall, though, the Ohio-bred Legend stitched together several different strains of older soul with enough personality to elevate his set beyond pastiche. The passion of Marvin Gaye leapt into uptempo, horn-powered numbers like the socially conscious "Hard Times" and suavely confident "Alright" (which found Legend checking out his three female backup singers); there was a dash of late-'60s Temptations psychedelia in the guitar of "Let's Get Lifted."
Whether he sat down at the piano to croon like Smokey Robinson ("Save Room") or stood on top of it exhorting the crowd to follow suit ("Green Light"), though, his story was the same: A man seeking release and redemption through romance, willing to work it out and not too proud to beg for another chance (if not overly given to compromise).
Soul music can be as complicated and contradictory as the very human emotions it charts, and if that meant an occasional retreat into the time-tested tropes of Al Green ("Slow Dance") or James Brown (a high-kicking cover of "I'll Go Crazy"), so be it.
Likewise, Sade is not a half-full or half-empty sort of songwriter. She is perfectly willing to take up arms for love or bask in its radiance, but in its absence will not hesitate to beseech the heavens to both file one hell of a complaint and petition any power greater than herself for a clue or two exactly where it went. "Is It a Crime" and "Jezebel," to name two examples, were the essence of what they call "quiet storm" - the soft and sultry arrangements enhanced rather than diluted the molten passion roiling in the lyrics.
Sade, the singer, did this as Sade, the band, ping-ponged back and forth between noirish jazz and midnight R&B with a sunnier pop moment here and there that served as an audible wink to the audience: Yes, they were dealing with some serious subject matter, but not completely at the expense of enjoying themselves - which, in fact, they seemed to be doing quite a bit.
From Sade herself came a sly smile here, a quick shimmy there and, often, a satisfied expression during a stageside pause that said she was enjoying her band's considerable prowess as much as the audience. Aftermath could have sworn she gave a Marilyn Monroe-like wink during "The Sweetest Taboo," while the home movies of "Nothing Can Come Between Us" paid homage to her band's long history together as the crowd (including Sade's mother, sitting nearby) breezily sang along.
Inflected with jagged electric guitar and a steady, almost techno-like, bass-drum pulse, many of the songs from last year's Soldier of Love - the title song, "The Moon and the Sky," "Skin" - might have been lifted from a John Le Carre novel, or perhaps a Bond film yet to come (see next page). Prowling the stage like a pantheress during "Paradise," Sade would have made a formidable match for 007 in the bedroom or anywhere else.
But remember, intrigue and seduction are nothing new for Sade. "Smooth Operator" came packaged as a full-on film-noir operetta, with flashing neon signs, panoramic nighttime cityscapes and a telephone voiceover about a "dame in a ponytail" and a rogue saxophone player (played in real life by Stuart Colin Matthewman, who hit one smoky solo after another).
Expelling wrenching heartache or inviting it back with risky flirtation, Sade the singer and Sade the band were up to the challenge Saturday. Down here in Texas, we have a word for a woman whose lustrous vocals slide over a steadfast resolve like a velvet glove over an iron fist.
Sade is one tough steel magnolia.
Personal Bias: I've always admired Sade from a distance; I admire her more after watching a two-hour set from ten rows away.
The Crowd: Predominantly female and 30s and 40s, dressed to the nines with the not-so-faint whiff of Crown Royal in the air. And clumsy - Toyota Center mop detail was called to the quadrant where we were sitting three separate times, once to our row.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Follow the red dot" - it was often very dark, making the battery light on Sade's wireless microphone hookup a convenient way to track her movements.
Random Notebook Dump: Especially after the Soldier of Love songs we saw, Aftermath is at a loss what else Sade needs to do to convince the caretakers of the James Bond franchise to let her sing the next movie's theme song. And the one after that, and the one after that...
JOHN LEGEND SET LIST
Rolling In the Deep (Adele cover) Hard Times Used To Love You Alright This Time Let's Get Lifted Slow Dance P.D.A. Save Room I Can Change I'll Go Crazy (James Brown cover) Everybody Knows Ordinary People So High Green Light
SADE SET LIST
Soldier of Love Your Love Is King Skin The Kiss of Life Love Is Found In Another Time Smooth Operator Jezebel Bring Me Home Is It a Crime Love Is Stronger Than Pride All About Our Love Paradise Nothing Can Come Between Us Morning Bird King of Sorrow The Sweetest Taboo The Moon and the Sky Pearls No Ordinary Love By Your Side
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