In 1985, Sade Adu became queen of a realm that was pretty much her own, where jazzy, Latin-tinged pop merged with smooth soul music. She was an exotically beautiful regent whose demeanor as a singer never strayed from an elegant, breathy cool.
At Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre Friday night, the white-lace, long-sleeved gown Sade wore was more befitting a bridesmaid than a queen. In fact, bridesmaid is what she is now in the field of jazz-inflected soul. After scoring two hit albums, “Diamond Life” and “Promise,” Sade went on sabbatical in 1986. Along came Anita Baker, a far more gifted singer and more dynamic performer, who supplanted Sade on the pop charts and who figures to be the queen of the sultry “quiet storm” sound for the foreseeable future.
Being No. 2 may not be a bad thing for Sade. Performing outdoors for an enraptured crowd at Irvine Meadows, she tried harder to become something more than the smooth operator she has been on her records.
Sade hardly abandoned the sultry, restrained persona of the albums. Her light, Brazilian-influenced rhythms give many of her songs that “Girl From Ipanema” feel, and she has a presence to match--a gliding, controlled bearing that smolders rather than burns.
But there were several instances in which Sade turned up the vocal heat in a departure from her recorded style. She lent a sharper edge to some of her phrasings, and, especially at the end of songs, she attempted dramatic sustains and dynamic leaps designed to blow away some of that customary cool.
It didn’t always work. Some of Sade’s note-bending leaps to her highest range sounded like vocal weight-lifting. She managed to carry the load, but not without a great deal of labor. The audience loved it, cheering and yelling with each forceful stroke, and at each movement (including some silly squatting steps) that departed from her customarily self-contained sway-and-glide. An encore tandem song-and-dance number with her strong supporting vocalist, Leroy Osbourne, showed that Sade is capable of strutting some funky stuff.
The half-English, half-Nigerian singer received crisp support from a nine-man backing ensemble (including the permanent trio that co-writes her songs). The show also benefited from an imaginative, well-executed lighting scheme that featured silhouettes and strikingly colored hangings projected against a backdrop. Swirling clouds and a shifting galaxy of stars adorned the screen for two numbers, making the set look like a Windham Hill album cover. On “Is It a Crime,” the strong, torchy number that ended the set, images of flickering flames shot up behind the band, helping to heat the mood.
Drawing material evenly from her three albums, Sade fell into a mid-set lull with songs like “Fear,” a turgid, melodramatic flamenco-styled ballad, and a bland version of “Smooth Operator.” A fiery Latin big-band instrumental workout appended to “Smooth Operator” lifted the show out of its doldrums. Sade kept that spark going with the easygoing but funky “Your Love Is King.” Soon, she even had most of the audience on its feet and dancing.
Sade had little to say between songs, but she smiled warmly while acknowledging applause. She didn’t need words to manage a bit of self-deprecating humor: responding to one particularly copious cascade of cheers, she threw back her head and struck a wry, mock-Diva pose. A costume change to a natty man’s suit that matched her band’s outfits also lent a humorous touch.
Sade left out the few songs in her repertoire that aren’t about love pledged or love betrayed. One of them, “Clean Heart,” deals poignantly with the waste of urban violence, and would be a fitting choice for a Southern California swing that continues tonight through Wednesday at the Universal Amphitheatre.