There: a beerman studded with Blues hockey emblems calling out his fare; next to him: a man in a white robe and sunglasses looking exactly like Isaac Hayes in his prime. Parents with their kids next to unbelievably gussied-up people on hot dates. An old man waving concert programs as if they were hockey rosters. Pretzels and Bud Light and garlic cheese fries and lots of dreadlocks. But then, Sade.
It was clear, even as John Legend played, that everyone was there for Sade. People cheered Mr. Legend, even catcalled at some of his commercialized vocal riffing, but once he introduced his band and himself, exiting the stage, and an image of Sade appeared on the screens hanging on either side of the stage, there was an audible inhale that sucked through the crowd.
I don't mean to write Mr. Legend off. He warmed up the crowd, made me forget about how really unsexy and devoid-of-mood the place was. Everything was obvious, he spoon-fed his music. Even as he rallied the crowd to clap or to "get up and dance with me," his act sagged with the soak of a crisp, highly-commercial agenda. His voice is undeniably strong and even sometimes surprising, but, like most singers of his caliber today, it's too clean. The whole performance had no edge to it, which was made keenly obvious when he performed a Vegas'd up version of James Brown's "I'll Go Crazy." Eh.
Sade's set was different. She emerged from a ramp under the stage to the sound of guns and explosions, her band ascending behind her on platforms, mid-groove in "Soldier of Love." The crowd howled as she saluted each section of the stadium, and then her voice came through. Maybe it was just some great coincidence of where I was sitting and angle and luck, but the sound was great -- and not just by Scottrade standards. The jag and clip of the guitars, the electronic snap of the drums, the synth-roar swarming, and Sade right up front.
Her voice is still great; maybe better with age. It sounds even reedier, more textured than ever, but can still blow through any of her songs' most pyrotechnic/acrobatic moments.
She was all bravura and class and even when the set dragged a bit during a string of low-tempo, mood songs, Sade's voice kept me in it. There is nothing plain or less-than-compelling about her singing, even when stage effects, weirdly British stage theatrics, and song after song drilling out the power of love or sadness in the lack of it threaten the music.
These conceptual theatrics often missed their mark or just sort of baffled me. A see-through curtain would drop on all sides of the stage, on which projections would create a live double-exposure --the band played through "Kiss of Life" and "Cherish the Day" while speeding down a country road or floating through a cityscape -- and undermine the music. Between pseudo-Super 8 footage of the band, a hokey Raymond Chandleresque intro to "Smooth Operator," and Sade singing alone onstage over pre-recorded strings while a huge burning sun rises and sets behind her, the night had its clichés.
But, for all the gloss and production, the band was genuinely into it. They were right with her, smiling at the crowd who'd been waiting for them for so long. "Is It a Crime" was the high point of the night: a nearly 10-minute-long showcase for the band's stop-and-start exactness and Sade's lush, soulful singing. She and her saxophonist/guitarist, Stuart Matthewman (her Bobby Keys, her Clarence Clemons) wrung the song out for all it's worth. I've never seen so many people dancing and yelling before. It was like a homecoming for Sade.