Adele: She's Bereft, Though Not of Talent

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

British songstress Adele Laurie Blue Adkins opened her concert Tuesday at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on an optimistic note: Standing alone onstage, finger-picking an acoustic guitar, she performed the lullaby-like "Daydreamer," plying her big, bluesy voice on her own lyrics about the thoughtful "jaw-dropper" of a guy who suddenly lands on her metaphorical doorstep. "You can tell that he'll be there for life," she sang hopefully, her wondrous, winsome vocals flooding the room.

It was a stunning first impression. Yet it was also an outlier.

An emerging star whose nom de art is Adele, she's a striking young vocalist who specializes in soul-jazz songs sung blue, not ones shot through with optimism. Her debut album, "19," is loaded with broken-relationship laments and aching songs about unrequited love; onstage Tuesday, she described her proffer as "sad and mopey and melodramatic."

She wasn't kidding. The second song of the 50-minute set was "Right as Rain," on which Adele sang: "Go ahead and steal my heart/To make me cry again/'Cause it will never hurt/As much as it did then."

Then came the plaintive ballad, "Melt My Heart to Stone," which paired echoing keyboards with Adele's unharnessed vocals: "I best tidy up my head/I'm the only one in love."

The show even closed with the tear-jerking single "Chasing Pavements," in which Adele wondered whether it might be time to give up her pursuit of a particular guy.

She clearly knows from bereft.

Adele recorded "19" when she was, well . . . 19. She turned 20 in May, by which point she was already a sensation back home. The album was released stateside last week, crossing the Atlantic on a tidal wave of hype built up by tastemakers who have insisted that Adele is the next Amy Winehouse -- which is to say, the next big thing among female British soul singers.

During the sold-out show, Adele displayed the endearing charm and powerhouse pipes of a bona fide star, although her original material didn't quite measure up.

A nimble singer with a penchant for using adventurous phrasing, Adele is blessed with the ability to drill down to the emotional center of a song. While she generally finds heartache there, her lyrics aren't as emotionally evolved as one might expect -- or hope, anyway -- given the richness and maturity of her singing.

"Cold Shoulder," for instance, was one of Tuesday's vocal highlights, with Adele addressing a most dismissive ex, her voice just dripping with anger and ache, even as she recited what sounded like lines from a teen diary: "These days, when I see you/You make it look like I'm see-through."

The Botticellian singer was accompanied by a keyboardist (Steve Holness) and an acoustic guitarist (Ben Thomas), though the two musicians never played on the same song.

The spare arrangements served the vocals well, though Adele was hardly pitch-perfect, sometimes wandering just off the note, warbling like Beth Orton. She was helped by all the reverb in the room, about which she marveled: "It's like having four different voices!"

Apologizing for running low on her own songs -- always a problem for a headliner touring in support of a debut album -- Adele filled the short set with three covers, most notably "Fool That I Am" by Etta James, whom Adele called her "favorite singer ever" before delivering yet another stunning vocal. The girl's future is bright, no?

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