In 1978, the herald of young Britain arrived in the U.S. to sneer that the queen “ain’t no human bein’.” Some 33 years later, a new model of young British singer brought the former colonies a different sort of message: “I thought Kate was getting a little too skinny, till I saw her in that dress.”
The predominantly female crowd at Washington’s very sold-out 9:30 Club roared its approval of Adele’s assessment of Kate Middleton’s wedding gown. But then it cheered just about every sound from the neo-soul star’s mouth Thursday night, whether sung or spoken. The first show of the vocalist’s current American tour was a twin-edged love fest: adoration for Adele and her songs, which are mainly about the guy who doesn’t adore her anymore. Most of these were from 21, Adele’s top-selling second album, which provided 10 of the 16 selections.
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A Londoner who recently turned 23, Adele has a big voice, and her brassy, retro vocals are the crux of her musical appeal. Adele’s material, most of which she co-writes, is serviceable and modestly eclectic, but often ordinary. Her 85-minute set — the same one she was performing in Europe last month, minus one tune — was unsurprising. But Adele likes to talk as well as sing, and her chatter provided much of the evening’s charm.
The performer opened with “Hometown Glory,” a number from 2008’s 19, backed only by keyboardist Miles Robertson. Even after she was joined by the rest of the band — bass, drums, two guitars and two backing vocalists — Adele kept things simple. Dressed in a loose, high-waisted black dress, the vocalist alternated between sitting on a stool or standing and gently swaying. (She can’t dance, she explained, unless “I’ve had a bottle of vodka.”) The only set dressing was an array of tatty lampshades, some on stands but most hanging from above the stage. There were, of course, 21 in all.
The set was divided primarily between torch songs, emphasizing Robertson’s McCartney-like piano, and soul stompers like the almost-disco “Rolling in the Deep,” the final encore. Some tunes fell between the two modes: “One and Only” was a slow-burn ballad, but energized by Memphis-soul rhythm guitar. It was also one of Adele’s singing showcases, with throaty flourishes that drew rapturous applause. The fans cheered every gymnastic squeal, growl or melisma as if Adele had just won gold at the Simon Cowell Vocal Olympics.
The singer varied the set’s tone with covers of the Cure’s “Lovesong” and Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” (both of which she’s recorded). The outermost stylistic variation was a version of the SteelDrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” a bluegrass lament for which the band produced a banjo and a melodica. “It’s about shooting your wife,” Adele announced, pausing for applause before adding, “and there are quite a few men in my life I’d like to shoot.” It was at moments like this that Adele seemed much more entertaining than her music.