This photo of two tour posters on Sade's website sums up what music fans understand to be true about the 2011 summer concert season: it's better than last year's, but still unpredictable.
Even as radio staple Rihanna's 2009 release, Rated R, hit its stride during a 30-week run on the Billboard charts in the summer of 2010, she was forced to cancel several shows due to the economy. Now, as the aforementioned photo suggests, the 23-year-old hitmaker's 2011 Loud outing is playing geo-tag with Sade's current world tour, as their respective (and very different) jaunts take similar paths around the globe. When Sade and Rihanna both hit venues in Atlanta this week, the former sold out two nights at an 18,000-seat arena while the latter performed one night in a 6500-seat amphitheater.
It seems 52-year-old Sade is not only a timeless performer, but a recession-proof one, as well. Nearly a month into her first U.S. stint in a decade (which began in Baltimore June 16 and winds up in Texas in early September), she's already blazing a money trail that will position her band as a contender for the year's most successful tour.
Sade performs at Atlanta's Philips Arena on July 12, 2011. Photo credit: Kristi York Wooten.
Although Pollstar magazine reports that general concert ticket sales were up more than 11% in the first six months of 2011, even acts like U2, whose 360 Tour has become the highest-grossing tour of all-time, have had trouble selling out every seat in advance. Many artists, including perennial top-grossers such as Paul Simon and James Taylor, chose a mix of smaller venues and theatres for their 2011 circuits.
But enough about the economic stuff. I want to get to the real reason Sade's tickets are selling like hotcakes: in a summer music calendar filled with venerable classic rockers and twentysomething pop divas, she's one-of-a-kind.
It's been more than two decades since her band debuted on the U.S. singles chart with "Smooth Operator," but as they took the stage at Philips Arena in Atlanta this past Tuesday night, playing a mix of new ("Skin") and old ("The Sweetest Taboo"), Sade induced the crowd into an ecstatic, trance-like state for upwards of two hours and never let us go.
It didn't matter that heavy-hitting opener John Legend had just crooned his heart out in a moving rendition of "Ordinary People." When Sade emerged from the darkness into a sexy shuffle for "Soldier of Love," it's as if she vacuum-sealed each heart and mind inside her magic bubble and floated us into an ethereal realm where peace, love, and backbeats reign supreme.
Of course, she looked gorgeous -- and a combination of arty film footage, smart costume changes, and strobe lights only accentuated her elegant silhouette. Yet true fans of the band know why early hits "Is It a Crime" and "Your Love is King" sounded just as fresh as they did at Live Aid exactly 26 years before... and the explanation has less to do with sophisticated ponytails, red lips, and barefooted hip-shaking than with solid, smooth grooves.
Why is Sade's sound so alluring? The casual listener might tell you that 1984's Diamond Life, 1985's Promise and 1988's Stronger Than Pride were seminal, pop-jazz hybrids responsible for bringing a bit of much-needed soul to MTV (and to a whole generation of lovemakers). There's also the music critic's approach, which praises the singer's unmistakable voice (as Rolling Stone did in a June 17, 2011 review of the current tour) and the band's technical agility, yet packages Sade as little more than a still-bankable 1980s act. And then there's the style editor's view, which would lead you to believe that the music is only half of the equation: Sade's physical beauty is so powerful, it alone makes her the modern-day equivalent of a Greek siren. Lastly, there are folks like me, who say it's a little bit of "all of the above" and more.
The appeal of Sade's current tour isn't just because the band plays exactly what you want to hear (every hit and then some), nor is it in the blissful singalongs her most memorable tunes encourage. It's not merely the virtuosity of the players, either, whose original members Stuart Matthewman (guitar, saxophone), Andrew Hale (piano/keyboards) and Paul Denman (bass) rarely get the credit they deserve for co-writing and creating (along with singer Sade Adu) almost thirty years worth of immaculately-produced material and putting on consistently nuanced (and funky) live shows.
Wanna know why this is the hottest tour of the summer? It's simple: people like the way Sade's music makes them feel.
Wrapping listeners in a mood as tightly as Sade does is not something many artists can do well, let alone making an arena feel like a cozy, high-design living room. Onstage in Atlanta, when the singer appeared in front of a giant orange spotlight midway through her set to perform the 1992 ballad, "Pearls," it became apparent that pop charts never had much to do with her popularity anyway.
Six miles away on the other side of town, Rihanna may have been chanting "Rude Boy" to her crowd of Top-40 devotees. But at Philips Arena, when Sade stood before us in a white, floor-length gown and sang a nearly two-decade old song about the woes of a Somali mother "dying to survive," no other performer could have felt more connected to today's headlines in that moment. Nor could any audience have felt luckier.