Sade at the Erwin Center

Soldier of Love: Sade at the Erwin Center, 9.7.11
Soldier of Love: Sade at the Erwin Center, 9.7.11 (by Gary Miller)

Ten long years ago, braised by July winds in Selma, Sade’s Nigerian birthplace took root in Central Texas. Wednesday at the Erwin Center, the singer returned as an exponentially more self-possessed and altogether transcendent talent. Jay-Z and Kanye West each beat UT’s so-called ‘drum’ with stripped stage theatrics, but Sade proved the drum major.

Diamond Life, 1984, came more than half the 52-year-old singer’s career ago. Her surety in lush modern soul as burnished and co-written by the same base core of guitarist/saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, keyboardist Andrew Hale, and bassist Paul Denman knows no major missteps to the tune of hundreds of millions of albums sold worldwide. The band’s sixth and most recent LP, last year’s Soldier of Love, debuted at No. 1 in the U.S.

Materializing onto a vast and empty stage from hydraulic risers below, the eight-piece group set the two-hour concert’s sensuous mood with the title track to its most recent release riding point. A beacon pulse of desert R&B ribbed by Matthewman’s steely guitar, “Soldier of Love” segued with digital precision into the pliant lounge exoticism of Diamond Life’s “Your Love is King.” Standing center stage in a tight black body suit with leather accessories, her eyes trained on the back of the full arena, Sade loosened Billie Holiday’s mesmeric cry with the command of Nina Simone.

“Smooth Operator” introduced video-enhanced set pieces, a big city backdrop highlighting her flamenco moves, arms extended over her head in permanent finger-snapping configuration. That calling card alone, the song that got Sade signed, could’ve sated the melting-pot throng, but “Jezebel” next proved the evening’s pivotal performance. Sitting on the edge of the stage, Denman stroking a stand-up bass, the singer swelled her voice into every last nook and cranny of the pooling ballad, cocktail seduction ceding the spotlight to jazz singer flight, Sarah Vaughan for the pop elite. “Is It a Crime” then cut loose with the singer forcefully pushing/pulling its highs and lows.

Letting her hair down for “King of Sorrow” and poured into a white sequined dress Vaughan might have seduced Carnegie Hall with, Sade marched her crew through one hypnotic caress after another, from “The Sweetest Taboo” to main set closer “By Your Side.” Her band introductions were more personable and gratifying than most singers’ entire shows.

Sole encore “Cherish the Day” found Sade on a one-person, 15-foot riser behind a stage scrim of Manhattan, the singer almost as high up as the Empire State Building. Measurements will have to be taken to determine which one’s actually taller.

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Sade, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan

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