Elegant and seductive are not words usually associated with an arena concert, but they are associated with Sade, one of the most enduring and beloved R&B acts of the past three decades. So would venue or vision win out when Sade visited D.C. for the first time in a decade at Verizon Center?
The answer is not surprising. The 52-year-old U.K. singer has led an unhurried and uncompromising career, earning a reputation as mystical siren who emerges infrequently but always with full potency. Touring in support of "Soldier of Love," her first new album in nine years, she was a peaceful, poised and yes, potent, star on Wednesday night. The current phrase of choice to describe a great concert is to say a band or performer "killed it." There's no debating the greatness of Wednesday's performance, but to use such violent imagery, no matter how non-literal, seems crude. For two hours Sade led the near-capacity crowd through a show that was life affirming.
"I'm at the borderline of my faith/I'm at the hinterland of my devotion/In the frontline of this battle of mine/But I'm still alive," were the first words out of her mouth on opener "Soldier of Love," as she ascended to the stage wearing all black — and bright red lipstick. Sade has earned a justified reputation as the soundtrack to amorous episodes, but this is more then mere bedroom music. Which isn't to say that love isn't her primary focus — a simple look at the set list finds the word in the title of six of the evening's 21 songs.
On her albums Sade is known to strip down songs to their bare essentials and her stage presence reflects this same mindset. She barely dances — a few shimmies, a couple shakes, some arm twirls. You get the sense she'd last maybe three weeks on "Dancing With the Stars." She barely belts. Late-set ballad "Pearls" was the only song to feature high-wire vocal gymnastics. It was a showstopping moment made all the more startling by the fact that she relied on the tactic just once.
Sade also doesn't pander. The night's lone moment of crowd-hyping -- "Can I hear you say 'yeah'?!" — was left to one of her
bandmates as she quietly slipped off stage for breather. The stage decor was also minimal. Call it jewelry store ad chic — red drapes, a translucent screen and videos that often featured black and white silhouettes.
The spare design was a smart choice. Sade's presence and voice are more captivating than any bells and whistles an effects team can conjure up. To take attention away from that alluring, alto purr would be foolish. Whether her band played steamy R&B or loungey soul, the voice glided gently along, somehow even finding peace with Verizon Center's usually unforgiving acoustics.
Sade is also the name of her band and the group was crucial to creating the sultry mood. The eight-man band was led by Stewart Matthewman who took turns on guitar and saxophone. His sax solos were welcome moments of bluster, not overly-indulgent but always increasing the heart rate just a bit.
Sade's fans showed their adoration in a fittingly low-key manner, but there were a moments of unrestrained glee. During the slow-burning "Jezebel" a few frenzied screams could be heard echoing throughout the arena. The words "love" and "Sade" were easy to decipher; the rest sounded like people speaking in tongues, as if these fans — grown adults — had something they had to communicate but were too overwhelmed to form coherent statements.
"It may be a long time until we cross paths again," Sade said at the end of the show. With her it's less a bluff than a promise.
Those shouters may have another full decade to decide what to scream at her next area show. But chances are it will just come out the same way.