“I’ve been desperate to do these shows,” said Adele of her seven-night homecoming residency at the O2 Arena. An internal tabloid alarm prompted a hurried follow-up about not being misinterpreted: she was desperate to play every show on her tour. Fame breeds caution. Any “Unhappy Adele Hates World” headlines must be scotched.
True to her analogue-era sales figures — 19m and counting for 25, the follow-up to the 30m-selling 21 — the performance had an old-school air of professionalism, sumptuously mounted and impeccably rehearsed. For the opening track, “Hello”, Adele stood on an island stage at the far end of the venue in a floor-length dress making well-schooled arm movements while singing (sweep, point, hold palm out), rotating carefully as though on a clock face. Each note was spot on.
She ended the song walking to the main stage to join her backing band. A string section, three backing singers and a grand pianist, all dressed in black, brought out the 1970s adult-contemporary aspect of her songs, sophisticated but emotive ballads sung with modern attack. A big screen showing her performing in close-up in black and white during the retro-soul number “One and Only” enhanced the sense of déjà vu. She appeared to have morphed into Dusty Springfield at a Royal Variety performance.
The curious thing about this classy, well-drilled staging, Adele’s first for the arena circuit, was the singer’s ability to be both regimented and spontaneous. Between songs she exhibited the most natural rapport with an audience that I have seen at the O2, chatting to the 19,000 or so present like an old friend. There was over-sharing (“Better to get that burp out the way now than during the song”) and witty repartee. A stream of punters were invited on stage, from a little boy who had come with his mother to a couple who chose to get to engaged during her handsome cover of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” (“I thought they were having a fight”).
The contrast between rehearsed act and spontaneous personality was water and oil at times, as with her Bond theme “Skyfall”, a luxurious but inert pastiche whose lightest touch was its introduction (“There’s no way to say this politely or humbly but I won an Oscar for this one”). It was in her singing, technically accomplished but as natural-seeming as breathing, that the two modes came together.
She could belt them out, as on “One and Only”, but the effect was not overbearing (crisp sound quality helped). She moved fluently between the lower register that is her base to higher notes without melodramatic trilling. A country music-inflected version of “Don’t You Remember”, performed with acoustic guitars and double bass, was given a tender reading.
Flashy special effects were kept to a minimum, such as the downfall of water that surrounded her for “Set Fire to the Rain” towards the end. The absence of high-tech arena spectacle helped the show. It allowed Adele’s personality to gain the upper hand over her professionalism.