Alright, stop looking. They're not gonna get any better than this. Sade at 1st Mariner, the first show of her new tour's American leg, is the best concert of the year.
Rihanna's was good, but it was amateur hour in comparison. U2's will be bigger, but it will not exceed the sheer transcendence of the Sade live experience.
The woman performs live rarely; her last major tour was a decade ago. And she's not even an occasional performer on the awards show circuit or singing competition shows. Few profiles of her fail to include the word "reclusive." It was likely that many in the crowd had probably not caught even her last tour.
Some headliners tour every two years, others - U2, Madonna, Springsteen - loom so large in the culture that it's exciting just to see them in concert. But, Sade's concerts have the makings of natural phenomena that happen once a decade. They come so rarely, she feels like pop's Halley's comet.
At that pace, seeing her perform is itself a privilege, an experience unlikely to be repeated, literally, for another ten years. One of the remarkable moments of the concert happened in the half hour past her announced 9 p.m. entrance time, when the anticipation at 1st Mariner was palpable. It was difficult not to be caught up in the collective euphoria of the impatient crowd.
The singer, however, did not coast on the adulation of a crowd that would have swooned even if she'd sung Creed covers. Her two-hour show was a success because, after all the flashy, gimmicky shows pop stars have been staging this past year, this was a palette cleanser.
There was no DJ on stage. No prop cars made any appearances. She did not wear an LCD dress broadcasting a rainbow screensaver. It was remarkable for the stuff it didn't have. The concert's producers relied on smart, visually engaging stagecraft that otherwise enhanced the band and singer's performance, rather than overwhelm it.
The crowd had been waiting for a while when without any notice, the lights dimmed, everyone stood up, erupted in cheers and Sade emerged from a runway from underneath the stage to sing "Soldier of Love." Her band - which included to drummers, a keyboardist, a saxophone player, two back-up singers, and three guitarists - was also lifted from underneath.
Except for a jumbo-sized screen showing some of her videos, she sang the single and those that followed on a mostly bare stage. Her costume was equally sparse: a black body suit, enormous hoop earrings, and red lipstick.
After she finished the first number, the crowd did not allow her to speak for a full minute of screaming in unison. "I wanna take you back where it all started," she said, and she wasn't kidding. The concert including selections from all her albums, and only a handful, like the first number, from the new one.
An early highlight was "In Another Time," when she sat by the keyboardist and turned the arena into a lounge. 1st Mariner has scarcely felt more intimate. She did somehing similar later on "Jezebel," where she had almost no accompanimrnt except for the saxophonist, the night's other star. "Kiss of Life," an ultra-romantic ballad, was another early highlight.
For "Smooth Operator," images evoking classic noir were projected on stage, a nice twist that updated a familiar song, at least visually. This was also the first of several costume changes. The band changed into suits and she into a men's suit sans blazer.
She sang "Bring Me Home" behind a translucent scrim, making her look like an apparition, especially when seen on the replay screens. It was a frest effect that gave he performance a spectral quality, fitting for a singer who disappears for as long as she does. On "Is it a Crime?", red curtains unfurled from the ceiling, setting up a dramatic tableau.
There was ample room for the staging to be dull, a showcase for her catalog of ballads, but the smart production on songs like this one and "Smooth Operator," coupled with elaborate lighting, prevented that from happening. It was visually interesting without having to resort to pyrotechnics or giant hallucinogenic brownies.
"Jezebel" and "Is it a Crime?" were two stand-out performances, both evocative and regretful, and powerfully sung. Taken together, the performances in the noir section of the concert underscored the notion that this might just be one of those shows you'd talk about for years.
Which why it was so remarkable to see the heavy-set man in front of me, clearly reviewing the show, playing Scrabble on Facebook. He stopped at one point, but it was only to play Angry Birds. (Fun game: who was that guy? A hint!)
The last section of the show began with "Morning Bird," a new song, that she sang barefoot in a shiny, white, floor-length gown that stayed as her costume until the encore. The song came after a couple of pretty but forgettable ballads, and a rousing "Paradise," where her back-up dancers took over the stage and egged the crowd on to sing together.
"Morning Bird" is a somber song, and set the tone for the melancholy numbers that followed, including "The King of Sorrow" and "The Sweetest Taboo." But the section culminated on an incredible moment when Sade was absolutely alone on stage singing "Pearls" and a massive, blazing sun towered over in the video screen behind her.
The crowd gave her a three-minute standing ovation to get her to return for the encore. Her choice, "Cherish the Day," was an apt one. I think everyone left feeling they had just witnessed something to remember.
Soldier Of Love
Your Love Is King
Kiss Of Life
Love Is Found
In Another Time
Bring Me Home
Is It A Crime?
Still In Love With You
All About Our Love
Nothing Can Come Between Us
King Of Sorrow
The Sweetest Taboo
The Moon And The Sky
No Ordinary Love
By Your Side
Cherish The Day
Photo: Sade performing at 1st Mariner Arena June 16. (Gene Sweeney/Baltimore Sun)