Six months ago I queued for ages on a freezing cold night in Digbeth waiting to be allowed into the much loved but well worn HMV Institute to see the relatively unknown Emeli Sande. Tonight I am in the luxurious surroundings of Birmingham’s premier venue, Symphony Hall, sipping a drink in the plush Foyer Bar waiting to see the same Emeli Sande, award winning global star of two Olympic ceremonies and one of the biggest selling UK artists of modern times.
Adele Sande – her real name – has a back story far removed from the usual dismal X Factor sob fests and one well worth revisiting. A successful mixed race student (Scottish / Zambian) from a small village outside Aberdeen studying medicine at Edinburgh University supplementing her student income by playing piano and jazz standards in the city bars, a sister and mother who sent tapes to 1Xtra. Her life –and her name were about to change.
Ras Kwame played the tape as part of his ‘Homegrown Sessions’ and she was invited to play a showcase in Soho. Adele (on medical placement in Madrid at the time) met producer/writer Naughty Boy. As a partnership they clicked immediately. “When we started together it took the music to something completely original. It took me out of my jazz piano niche, and it took him out of his urban scene.”
One of their first compositions was Diamond Rings, Sandé sang on the track and it became Chipmunk’s first Top Ten single in summer of 2009. In March 2010 Virgin Records signed her and she decided to take time out from her medical studies. Adele became Emeli and her writing led to a string of hits for other artists and then it was time to fly solo. Her extraordinary TV debut on Jools Holland in September 2011, playing a stripped back Heaven – now with 7 million YouTube hits – propelled her onto a world stage and as the bell rings I finish my drink – so very civilised – to the stage of Symphony Hall.
The venue, celebrating its 21st year runs like a well oiled machine but – small point -the 7.30 advertised start time is changed to 8pm and an almost full venue is welcomed by Emily King, a stylish New Yorker with acoustic guitar and Travolta hair style supported by a very tall glum looking lead guitar and a young guy in bare feet sitting on a sound box shaking and beating a great rhythm. The immaculate sound in Symphony Hall allows every single word to be heard perfectly even up in the gods and a 7 song acoustic set of tight and light well crafted songs is well received, highlight for me being a very welcome cover of the Isley Brothers classic Work To Do from 1972 which was covered by legendary Scottish funk Average White Band.
And talking of Scotland, after a 30 minute break at 9pm Symphony Hall is packed to the roof and a buzz of anticipation becomes a roar as the lights explode Olympic style and the star of the night and 2012 makes her way to the front of the stage. The shimmering blond hair, black ankle boots and a stylish loose fitting dress, the warm and girlish smile stand momentarily dazzled – hardly surprising after her last gig in Birmingham was at a half filled and chilly Institute.
But this is November and April in Digbeth is a lifetime ago. Accompanied by two banks of musicians, to the right, guitar, and two keyboards, to the left, bass, 4 backing vocalists – more of them later – and a huge percussion set up. Centre stage at the back a mountain of drums behind a stand up piano and the star of the night waiting for the applause to calm down.
The first section is a mix of old and new, Daddy starts the show, Tiger, Where I Sleep and Enough before she introduces a new song Pluto and having sung a chorus she wanders off stage leaving the backing vocalists in charge. 3 seriously large women who would not have looked out of place in the front row at Twickenham along with a a skinny white guy who had to turn sideways to stop falling of the podium as the they swayed in rhythm. I feared a costume change but Emeli returned with a fresh bottle of water to launch into My Kind of Love sung with power and grace and passion. It went down a storm.
The lights went down, the stage was cleared and a cello intro saw Emeli standing by an upright piano, there is nothing grand or pretentious about this woman and Clown, River, How Would It Feel, a beautiful Suitcase as a duo with bass and Read All About It, led to the finale – Wonder was wonderful, followed by Mountains and after a brief speech in her light Scottish accent delivered with perfect diction she took us to Heaven, my personal record of the decade greeted with a roar that shook the uncertain foundations of Symphony Hall – but that is another story.
It was encore time and a downbeat Maybe set the scene for a raucous version of Next To Me with the entire audience on their feet joyously singing the chorus and at 10.30 on the dot – this is Symphony Hall – after 90 minutes of sheer delight, the delightful Ms Sande spoke without a hint of showbiz speak about what a wonderful night she had enjoyed in a wonderful venue at the end of a truly amazing year for a medical student from a little village outside Aberdeen.
If there is ever a dvd of tonights concert made available, get it for this was Emeli Sande at her remarkable best although I suspect that Abide With Me, where she was drowned out by over enthusiastic backing and mercifully cut it short will not make the final cut.
Other than that it was a night of near perfection – almost heavenly.
Review by Chadwick Jackson
Photographs by John Mason