wed 20/03/2019

Emeli Sandé, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Emeli Sandé, Royal Albert Hall

Emeli Sandé, Royal Albert Hall

Double Olympian unleashes her medal-winning larynx

Emeli Sandé: heartache interleaved with celebratory bursts of thudding energy

You can tell by all the important upper case that the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games were the shows to be seen emoting at. Emeli Sandé can make the unique boast that she performed on both bills. That’s quite a badge of honour for a musician whose debut album Our Version of Events was released only in February, and whose songwriting career has been at least as much about supplying hits to talent-show graduates. Last night’s full house at the Albert Hall – she’s also in Manchester this evening – will have been drawn by admiration for the voice and the songs, but also by curiosity. After her annus mirabilis, can Sandé hold a big stage on her lonesome for 90 minutes?

There’s no denying the impact of the larynx. It’s a classically hefty soul voice, all solid alto anchor leavened by a sweet upwards swoop, and it was entirely uncowed by the famous old venue. Within two songs she had established its twin settings: an angry bludgeon in “Daddy”, a cello-like instrument of sorrow in “Tiger”. And so it went: well-worded songs about heartache interleaved with celebratory bursts of thudding energy.

To help her narrate these stories in song, Sandé cleverly worked the instrumental permutations. An eight-strong all-female string section on either side of the stage sawed decoratively (although the arrangements themselves will have bored them witless). Behind glass screens, drums and percussion tickled out persuasive R&B beats. On a new song – “I Can’t Give Enough” – she was backed by low strings and keyboards, on “Suitcase” by solo bass. A lone cellist accompanied Sandé note for note in a single verse of “Abide With Me”, reprising her solo moment at the Opening Ceremony.

Suddenly released from its own shackles,  the show leapt to another theatrical level

For an intimate middle section, Sandé parked herself at her piano – she calls her closest musical companion Iris, for the record – for a bit of unplugged plangency. The power ballads “Clown” and “River” were followed by a rare spot for a song by another composer, in this case her songwriting idol Nina Simone. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” was a telling choice, featuring a clever melodic hook which takes a while to lilt towards nowhere in particular.

This is a Sandé signature. An evening in the company of her songbook suggests that, compositionally, she’s by no means the finished article. However seductive the initial ideas in songs like “Breaking the Law” and “Where I Sleep”, their forward movement relied here a little too much on turning the volume knob up (or down). Sure, Sandé wrang every drop of passion out of every number by pumping her fist and contorting her body on steep heels, but at the heart of her songwriting it feels as if there is still something to come: a sense of development, maybe just a middle eight or two - anything to break the vague taste of vanilla.

The audience – drawn squarely from the X Factor demographic – seemed eager to eat out of her palm. But they didn’t take up her early invitation to dance and, tellingly, detonated as one out of their seats only when Professor Green burst on to the stage to rap on “Read All About It, Pt III”. A comparable cheer greeted Labrinth as he slipped on to duet on “Beneath Your Beautiful”. For all Sandé’s earnest commitment to the moment, it was as if the concert had been waiting for something else to happen. Suddenly released from its own shackles, the show leapt to another theatrical level. Sandé switched cocktail dresses from demure black to hot dark pink, and a propulsive “Wonder” was followed by the slow-burning gospel of “Mountains”, the stomping megahit “Heaven” by the introspective break-up song “Maybe”.

Sandé closed with “Next to Me”, cheerfully dedicated to “my brand new husband”, the voice miraculously undiminished by a hard night at the coalface. But for the songs to match the splendour of her instrument, there's still a bit of work to do.

Follow Jasper Rees on Twitter

Sandé wrang every drop of passion out of every song by pumping her fist and contorting her body on steep heels

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Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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