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June 2, 2011 5:16 pm

Sade, 02, London

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 Sade has an unshowy intelligent sound

Say the name “Sade” to most British pop critics and “wine bar soul”, “reclusive”, even “soporific” will be thrown back. The associations are beyond clichéd; the reaction is more like an allergic spasm. Thus the UK’s most successful female artist (more than 50m records sold), a byword for classiness in the US, is forever typecast by her 1984 debut, Diamond Life, and her dislike of the limelight. Can that be fair?

As this was her first London gig for 18 years, she is certainly not overexposed. Yet the staccato opener, “Soldier of Love”, was a bracing contrast to expectations, echoes of tough reggae on parade amid the ersatz military tattoo. The title track of Sade’s 2010 album, her first for a decade, it proved she deals in tasteful trip-hop not nearly enough as treacly balladry. There was plenty of the latter to come.

My difficulty with Sade is that I have seldom felt an emotional charge in her vocals. Granted, “Your Love Is King” is a song of quiet submission to desire, but the subtlety of her material often slips frictionlessly through my grasp. Here, at least, she did justice to herself as a singer. Not one of much range, but with an unshowy intelligence that is refreshing in the X Factor era.

It is customary to note she looks good for 52. With three understated costume changes, she looked in great shape – though the video of her flouncing in a meadow was naff and indulgent. Indeed, questionable sequencing detracted from the otherwise slick and satisfying stage business. The cleverest section featured a fantasy 1950s speakeasy. Borrowing the always evocative backdrop of Manhattan at night, “Smooth Operator” sounded lithely jazzy, as if moonlighting as a TV theme.

“Jezebel”, full of small-hours vulnerability, found her in finest voice. For once, the dreaded 1980s saxophone break did more than smear itself stridently, managing a suitably fretful tone. “Paradise” delivered adult-oriented funk. Later, “Sweetest Taboo” struck a slinky groove. Yet no sooner were the crowd on their feet than they were seated again. “Pearls”, about women in Somalia, was sung from the heart, but lyrically patronising and clumsy.

The finale was the gently downtempo “By Your Side”. One person’s slow dance, however, is another’s snooze button. As the fans began to drift off with a warm glow, I was practically comatose. 

 

The O2

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