The singer Sade is a mystery, and not only because she's famously guarded about her private life. No, the bigger puzzle is how this 52-year old artist, whose best known hits came out over 20 years ago and who, in an age of relentless promotion, waited a decade before releasing her latest album, can pack arenas with blissful fans the way she did Sunrise' BankAtlantic Center on Friday night. (She performs at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday).
Part of the answer may lie in her very unattainability - as every wise diva should know, people want what they can't have. But the greatest part of Sade's appeal is her even rarer musical gifts and emotional power as a singer. Her inimitable voice, at once sweet and husky, smoky and pure, vibrated through the vast arena. When she purred "there's a quiet storm, and it never felt this hot before" in her trademark hit The Sweetest Taboo, you wanted to add "or since." Her passionate delivery on Jezebel and Is It A Crime, two of the night's showstoppers, was all the more riveting for its quiet intensity and the way she quietly caressed the heartbreak from the music. When she sang "is it a crime, that I still want you?" that age old question become newly agonizing.
Sade's voice is the shimmering center of her band, three of whom - the charismatic saxophonist and guitarist Stuart Matthewman, pianist Andrew Hale, and bassist Paul Denman - have been with her since she started in the early 80's. The tour also includes two terrific but understated back-up singers and two percussionists. Together they form a beautifully tight and fluid ensemble, with Matthewman's soaring sax solos a highlight, pivoting around their singer's exquisite voice, as smoothly, expertly confident as a good lover. The music is richly textured, jazzy, soulful pop, and if it occasionally meandered towards a lugubrious lounge sound, the intensity of Sade's voice, and the musicians' taut expertise, kept things on track.
Sade entered on stairs that rose from the stage, singing Soldier of Love, the title track from her 2010 album, wearing a sleek black turtleneck and pants, hair pulled back, her wide mouth a slash of red on her serene, high-cheekboned face. Her other costumes - black vest and pants over white shirt, a silvery retro style gown, a red high-necked long dress - also emphasized her elegance and restrained sensuality. The stage design and special effects were beautifully and strikingly designed: washes of red light or slashing white spotlights, video of a sequin-clad Sade spiraling in a shimmering night sea for Moon and Sky, a transparent scrim that occasionally cloaked the band, filled by projections of snowy roads for Bring Me Home. On Pearls, a wrenching ballad of a Somalian woman's struggle to survive, Sade sang alone onstage, silhouetted against a burning sun - a stark and daring moment for a pop concert.
Throughout Sade was warm but restrained, a diva from another era in an age of relentless sexiness and hard sell. "I grew up being cold and I used to dream of being someplace as lovely and exotic as this," she said to the roaring crowd early on. "I never dreamed you would be so nice." She seemed both down to earth and mysterious, a woman you would always long to know better. For the encore, Cherish the Day, a pillar lifted her high above the stage, an iconic, dreamy spirit.
Opening act John Legend, despite his prodigious talent, charisma, and Grammy-winning credits, could have learned something from her self-contained confidence. Backed by a terrific, energetic 10-piece band, Legend, often commanding the band from the piano, soared from crooning falsetto to old school soul wail on hits like Get Lifted and Slow Dance. He's a terrific musican with all the right elements. But, at least in concert, Legend's songs tend to lack the kind of really compelling musical hook that would make them memorable. And his performance, as virtuoso and intense as it was, couldn't match Sade's serene power.