Sade @ The LG Arena, 29th May 2011

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Whilst driving along the M42 to the NEC, I never dreamed what a night of perfect music was before me.

It started in fine style as in honour of Gil Scott Heron who had died the day before, I listened to his “Winter In America” album on the journey. I have to admit there was a part of me that thought this may be the highlight of the evening and what remained would be highly polished, over-produced, robotic pop-jazz fusion, diluted by years away from the business. I could not have been more wrong.

I am pleasantly surprised to see the LG Arena has smartened up its act since my last visit here in 2003 (which at the time I had promised myself would be my last). The new entrance area in the Forum, with its cafés and bars is a much more pleasant place to be than previously when you had to stand just outside of the seating area in the actual arena (and then quickly down your drink before taking your seat).

The support act is Jamaica’s The Jolly Boys featuring Albert Minott. This group of mainly 60+ year old men are an absolute joy to the ears and spirits. They play tracks from their current album “Great Expectation”, which features an amazing selection of cover versions, all played in their ‘mento’ style (a genre that pre-dates reggae by 20 years and is its inspiration). Initially I thought they had been checking my list of favourite songs as Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” was followed by “The Passenger”, then the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, then a far superior version of “Rehab”. Albert Minott’s vocal sometimes much more suited to these gritty tales than their original singers. But what shines out above everything is the band’s love for performing. The band has been going in different incarnations since the 1940’s, but they still bounce, they still shine, and they still love the music and the way it moves an audience. Their album is an absolute essential item.

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Following a short break and a hive of activity on the stage, where the floor is cleared and polished and a massive curtain left to hang, the lights go down. From the darkness, the gut-busting drums from ‘Soldier of Love’ bursts out from the PA with crystal clarity. It is an interesting lead in track as it is so different from her earlier work, with the distorted guitars and angular rhythms: smooth it is not, but thrilling it certainly is.

Not for the first time the stage and curtain choreography grabs unnecessary attention from the band, as curtains fly off to the back of the stage and the band emerge vertically from below. Ms Adu then appears from another hole in silhouette and I amazed how recognisable that shape is, with the long, slender body, long legs and slicked back hair into a long ponytail.

What follows is a lesson in how to remain cool and yet infinitely approachable and welcoming. Sade’s mile wide smile pulls in the audience and her stunning voice envelops them, while her stage presence reminds all present what an iconic figure she really is. The band’s withdrawal from the limelight over the last decade almost magnifies this, giving Sade a Garbo-esque stature. One thing that is glaringly obvious though, is that Sade is happy not to be alone.

The list of stunning songs run and run, covering all her albums, including: ‘Your Love Is King’, ‘Skin’, ‘Love Is Found’, ‘Kiss of Life’, ‘Smooth Operator’, ‘Paradise’, ‘Nothing Can Come Between Us’, ‘King of Sorrow’, ‘The Sweetest Taboo’, ‘No Ordinary Love’ and ‘By Your Side’ (which is particularly poignant for me as it was the first song played at my wedding reception).

Without doubt though the lower key songs are my personal highlights: ‘Jezebel’, ‘Is it a crime?’ and ‘Pearls’ stand out for being stripped back with Sade’s powerful husky voice filling the arena and leaving goosebumps across the entire audience. Also the jazzed out slowed down version of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Still In Love With You’ is unmissable.

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There has clearly been a lot of attention given to the stage sets, lighting and projections, as throughout the whole concert it is constantly changing. Curtains drop; they are pulled away. Projections are made against a white muslin cloth that is lowered around the whole stage, surrounding the band completely so they are within the projection, and then it is raised. Projections of videos and films and cityscapes are also made against the back drop… sometimes this happens simultaneously Lighting on the stage gives the impression of an airport runway at night. Sade runs up and down ramps; musicians rise and descend from underneath the stage… it is mind-boggling. Added to this are two giant screens either side of the stage, fed by two video cameras that show the close-up action on stage, missed by all except the front 10 rows. It is a blessing to see Sade’s joy at playing live captured at close range and in high definition.

I guess my only reservation is that Sade and her band seem slaves to the set designer as too often the running order of songs is dictated by costume changes, curtain cues, film running times etc. A few times the set picks up some momentum and the audience are rising to their feet ready for the next groove, only to be seated because there is a few minutes break while Sade changes her clothes or some curtains are lowered. Granted Sade looks more and more beautiful with each change and the set is a wonder to behold, but when the crowd are moving, don’t be a bad DJ and put on ‘Lady In Red’. This is just nitpicking though and I guess when a crowd has waited so long for Sade to play live again, what is a few more minutes.

So after my earlier reservations in the car, I can safely say Sade and her note perfect, super cool band are the absolute highlight of the year. The NEC loses marks for making drivers park at the furthest possible car park from the arena and charging £8 for the privilege. Gil Scott Heron takes me home and reminds me what an incredible loss to the world he is. A night of stunning music and overwhelming emotions: this is what music is all about.

Review – Al Neilson
Photos – John Mason

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