Sunday, August 14, 2011

Love is King: Sade Live in Vancouver and On Tour

I was warned about attending this show by a close friend who is a major Sade fan. He said “prepare to be taken away. If you have any emotion, bring a tissue”.

Make no mistake that the crowd gathered at Rogers Arena on Saturday, August 13 in Vancouver is not your usual big-arena collective. The crowd skewed older, but testifies to the lasting power of Sade’s sultry sonic output. For those of you whose memories of “vintage” pop music date as far back as Jennifer Lopez’s J. Lo album in 2001: yes, Sade is still a big-name act and one of the few lasting acts in contemporary music. It’s just that their music will never date as badly. Want more proof that people still buy their work? Their last studio album, Soldier of Love, opened at No. 1 in the US last year and sold a million copies. Got it?

That is also not to say that the audience was sedate simply because the vibe was decidedly downbeat before the set started. There was a conspicuous absence of hallucinogenic drugs and no yahoos were dancing around, shrieking drunkenly. None of that is needed, not at a Sade concert. However, the crowd’s benign façade melted away as the house lights were dimmed and the strains of “Soldier of Love” came over the speakers, the audience rose as one to welcome the band. Once Ms. Adu took the stage in a fitted bodysuit showing off a remarkable physique, everyone at Rogers Arena lost their collective minds.

I should clarify that Sade is not just the stunning, alluring singer known as Helen Folasade “Sade” Adu. It is also a collective comprised of founding members Stuart Matthewman, Paul Spencer Denman and Andrew Hale. If you look through the band’s history, their many music industry prizes include a number of Grammys, two of which were awarded to the best vocal performance by … a duo or group. The band is simply named after her and she is the frontwoman for this long-running collective. This is the key to understanding that Sade is a classy outfit and they put on an elegant show. For the purposes of this review, I will refer to Sade Adu the singer as simply “Ms. Adu”. It would be strange to refer to her otherwise as “Helen”, at least within this context.

The first proof that Ms. Adu is a sophisticated lady and that this was a classy affair was right after the opening number, when she addressed the audience by saying that their long absence from the city was not a reflection of how the band felt about Vancouver. She praised how beautiful Lotus Land was, thanked us for coming, and promised us a show. This was at 9:45. To show us that she meant it, we were still screaming for an encore by the time her set ended at 11:45, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The band ripped through an elaborate back catalogue dating back to their debut album, 1984’s Diamond Love. To keep momentum up after the glorious start, the opening strains of “Your Love is King” brought lovers near and far closer together. At one point I thought that there would be a mass exodus of couples from the venue before the show ended, not a reflection of the show’s quality, but a testament to the band’s lasting power to make some of the best baby-making music ever recorded. Adu’s remarkable voice was an instrument so fine it is the equivalent of a 1683 Stradivarius: an extremely rare, classic instrument that only grows finer and achieves greater clarity as time goes by, and deserves the utmost respect.

A word on the stage set-up for this production: a giant background screen behind the band filled the stage, but it was not merely to project images of Sade onstage during the performance. There was much use of shadow-play and interpretive dance, together with evocative landscapes and artily-lit canvases, choreographed exquisitely with the music and filling the eye. For an instance of how it was used so evocatively, check out this fantastic clip of their new single “Love is Found” at a recent performance.

The use of music and imagery was timed immaculately to give a wrap-around effect. If you were lucky enough to see this live, you will know this is nothing short of a hypnotic experience. And if you weren’t completely enraptured by that point, you were likely dead or will die of your own bad taste soon.

We continue on with a quick costume change, with Ms. Adu returning in a vest and open-collared man’s shirt, in time for signature song “Smooth Operator”. It’s remarkable that Ms. Adu does not need to shout out the lyrics or rasp them out the way so many veteran music acts do as time progresses and their ages have been ravaged by ciggies and drink. She still sounds as glorious as the day she first cooed the song’s opening line “diamond life” over the airwaves in 1985. Given how gorgeous she still is – remember, she is 52 years old (!!!) this year and does NOT look a day over 35 – and how remarkable she sounds, this is a sign to all current rock acts that living well truly is the way to looking young. The rest of the band’s founding members are still there and have hardly aged a day since they too took the public stage with her nearly 30 years ago. My companion remarked, “Wow! She must be really great to work with!” Hear, hear. Matthewman, Denman and Hale didn’t need to power or blast their way through the long set, they simply played, without having to Try Hard. And although Lady Gaga might have brought back the use of the sax in “The Edge of Glory”, she couldn’t do what Sade does with the same instrument: make it downright sexy.

Sade is a group that doesn’t need teams of back-up dancers to obscure the fact that the headliner is arse (cf. Britney Spears’s current and last concert tours), or pyrotechnics to distract the audience in sensory overload. This is also a show where fewer people than usual whipped out their camera phones to constantly record the event. It’s OK to just listen and watch the concert, people. There’s no need to text someone or Tweet about it every other song.  Just do it once every fifth song like a rational human being. Please and thank you.

The rest of the band’s hits were represented here: “Paradise”, “The Sweetest Taboo”, “By Your Side”, “King of Sorrow”, “Kiss of Life” and encore number “Cherish the Day”, amongst others. If you think that Ms. Adu croons and can’t belt it out the way Gaga, Mimi or other contemporary artists do, evidence to the contrary can be adduced by simply sitting and listening to her hit glorious high notes on “Jezebel” and “Is It a Crime?”. There is no need for American Idol-style vocals runs popularized by Christina Aguilera. Ms. Adu will only emphasize certain parts of each song when it is warranted, thank you very much.

But Sade saved two of their best numbers for last: one, a sumptuous “No Ordinary Love” that shows how a wind machine can be used in live stage performance without making it seem comically “diva”. This is one of the all-time greatest dramatic love songs and still has a lasting, percolating power today. For me, this is their true signature song, even if it isn’t as universally acknowledged the way “Smooth Operator” has. (Given the audience reaction, it’s also one of Sade’s most acclaimed masterpieces.) 

The real testament to Ms. Adu’s powers as a vocalist was on “Pearls”, the heartbreaking, stripped-down track from 1992’s Love Deluxe. She took the stage in a long silver gown, barefoot, with only the unforgiving African sun blazing behind her in a solar eclipse, with the band off-stage. The minimal instrumentation here highlights and augments Ms. Adu’s glorious voice once and for all. If you haven’t been moved by the power of the show yet, this is the number that will get that lump in your throat. If you have been crying throughout, this would have finished you off.

The classy element that pervaded the show was made abundantly clear when the show ended. Ms. Adu’s stage presence was more than enough that she didn’t have to shout out the city’s name every three minutes on cue to get the crowd warmed up (it’s embarrassing and a sign of laziness on the artist’s part whenever they do that). Instead, at the very end, the music stopped, and she introduced each and every last person quietly, with a turn of phrase that is by turns witty and touching, as you know that she and her band have been together for a very, very long time, and clearly still enjoy each other’s company. (Take that, Fleetwood Mac!) For example, she describes one of her backup singers in angelic terms, and says that we must be thankful that such a man “has descended long enough from the heavens to bask us in his glorious presence”. My companion was correct: she is truly a great lady.

Almost every other concert is described as an “epic time” by promoters, crazed fans, music writers and the like. Sade doesn’t need to promote their show as being “epic”, and none of us who attended needs to be told it would be so. We knew it will be.

Sade is on tour throughout North America and Europe until November 2011. For tour dates and more information, click here. And here is their phenomenal YouTube channel.