Live review: Sade/Sydney Entertainment Centre, December 2011

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: rock
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The balance between style and substance has always been a wobbly one in popular music. Duke Ellington’s urbane sophistication drew him an audience that his genius and artistry allowed him to then maintain. The Beatles were always ahead in both the style stakes and the music stakes. And for all his musicological importance, we would have never heard of Elvis Presley had he been a toupee’d dwarf instead of the Tupelo honey we all know and love.

The byword of the 80s was style – a glossy, shiny, bloodless chic that never seemed all that bothered with substance. This style carried from fashion to lifestyle to drugs to music and beyond into all aspects of popular culture. Icons abounded as the fashionista denizens of the 80s flitted from shiny thing to shiny thing.

The Nigerian-British singer Sade was an embodiment of that iconic style. A startlingly modelesque performer – her oval face and languid exoticism were just made for MTV – Sade first came to notice with her eponymous band’s debut album, 1984’s ‘Diamond Life’. The hit single ‘Smooth Operator’ epitomised her appeal, her style and her era – a light latin rock beat with some bluesy sax and Sade’s sung-whispered vocals over the top. As the lyric of the songs itself says: “He moves in space with minimum waste and maximum joy”. Effortless cool.

The full-house crowd at Sydney’s cavernous Entertainment Centre were obviously there to worship and adore and Sade gave them the full goddess treatment. Under a projection of storm clouds and the sounds of battle a fan of light burst from the stage and up rose that familiar silhouette – still amazingly lithe almost 20 years on from ‘Smooth Operator’. Her band rose up around her dressed, as she was, in black military fashion, and it was ‘Soldier of Love’ from her 2010 album of that name.

Under full lights her beauty is completely intact, the oval face, the lack of  expression, the too-cool “minimum waste and maximum joy”. We were all awestruck, but snapped out of it by ‘Your Love is King’ from ‘Diamond Life’. Her slicker-than-Steely-Dan eight-piece band was entirely on the money, moving through their choreographed steps without dropping a beat.

Each and every song was dressed in some of the most extremely theatrical production I have seen (maybe I should get out of the tatty jazz clubs and grungy rock pubs more often…), with images and projections crossing the huge LED screen at the back of the stage and a rising and falling gauze curtain at the front. The video set-up for ‘Smooth Operator’ took longer than the song itself – a filmlet encompassing all things noir and ‘jazz’ (inverted commas intended). This was to allow the band time for a costume change (one of several) into gray suits; Sade herself appearing in a man’s grey waistcoat and trousers.

This heralded the ‘jazz club’ part of the show, with the band theatrically lounging around a suddenly intimate part of the stage and culminated in Sade kneeling on the edge of the stage, emoting the torchy ‘Jezebel’ from 1985’s ‘Promise’.

It was around this time that I found myself thinking what hokum this all was – the double bass, the wailing ‘bluesy’ (again, inverted commas intended) tenor sax, the ‘jazz’ guitar. In fact you could put inverted commas around all of it; it all seemed a synthetic simulcrum of something real. Sade and her robotically choreographed team had plunged us into a phantasy world of replicant cool, of airbrushed style – yes, we were back in the 80s.

What did I expect? This is what she does and with album sales of 110 million to her name, she must be giving us what we want. And is the Sade phantasy of sultry noir jazzclub cool any different from the schlock-horror phantasy of an Alice Cooper show, the Dante’s inferno phantasy of a Nick Cave show or the Daddy’s Bad Girl phantasy of dear departed Amy Winehouse? It’s all good fun, and an integral part of pop culture of any stripe – rock’n’roll outlaw or pure pop for pretty people.

Of course, it goes without saying that the Entertainment Centre’s Sade Squad loved every highly polished minute of it. By the time she appeared clad in a white cocktail dress, all cleavage and ebony coiffure, to sing ‘The Sweetest Taboo’ the fans all around me were going wild – or as wild as a strike-the-pose mood of a Helen Folasade Adu OBE concert would allow.

Published December 2011 on liveguide.com.au

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