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 when Sade visited Washington for the first time in a decade?
The answer is not surprising. The 52-year-old British 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 at Verizon Center 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 nonliteral, 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 the opener, “Soldier of Love,” as she ascended to the stage wearing all black — and bright red lipstick.
Sade has earned a reputation as the soundtrack provider of amorous episodes, but her work is more than bedroom music. Which isn’t to say that love isn’t her primary focus — a 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 songs to their bare essentials, and her stage presence reflects that mind-set. She barely dances — a few shimmies, a couple of 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 offstage for a 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 that an effects team could conjure up. To take attention away from that alto purr would be foolish. Whether her band played steamy R&B or loungey soul, Sade’s voice glided gently along, somehow even making peace with Verizon Center’s usually unforgiving acoustics.
Sade is also her band’s name, and it was crucial to the sultry mood. The eight-man group was led by Stuart Matthewman, who took turns on guitar and saxophone. His sax solos were welcome moments of bluster, not overly indulgent but increasing the heart rate just a bit.
Sade’s fans showed their adoration in a fittingly low-key manner, but there were moments of unrestrained glee. During the slow-burning “Jezebel,” a few frenzied screams could be heard in the arena. The words “love” and “Sade” were easy to decipher; the rest sounded like people speaking in tongues, as if these fans — adults — had something they had to communicate but were too overwhelmed to be coherent.
“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.