Chicagoans have been spoiled this spring with up-close-and-personal opportunities to see some of music's biggest stars. Just this month Paul Simon played an intimate show at the Vic, and Neil Young shuffled around the Chicago Theatre stage. British pop-soul sensation Adele only has a few years on their many decades, but as this year's biggest breakout thus far -- boasting the current No. 1 album ("21") and single ("Rolling in the Deep") -- she was an arena-sized star giving a wonderfully intimate, sold-out performance Tuesday night at the 2,500-capacity Riviera Theatre.
She won't be playing theaters for long, no doubt, and Tuesday's fans certainly enjoyed their good fortune. Adele (her last name is Adkins) walked on stage to a shower of cell-camera strobes that went on for three minutes. "You sing it," she commanded during "Someone Like You," an encore, but the crowd had been singing along all night. During one song, whenever Adele wasn't singing, the crowd shouted their adoration: "We love you, Adele!" "Sing it, girl!" "God, I love you!" That was just the men. When she returned for the encore, someone threw a black T-shirt on stage. She chuckled. It read in handmade script: "ADELEaholics anonymous."
What inspires such devotion to such a normal young woman? There was nothing on the Riv's stage but a giggly girl with one incredible voice. No dress made of meat -- she wore a simple print blouse and tights, her red hair in a heap. No preachy, bad-to-the-bone songs -- "21" is a basic break-up album. No theatrical gimmickry -- Adele's five-piece band shunned solos and worked hard not to be noticed on a stage decorated only with dim lampshades and a few rugs. Lady Gaga's latest craving for attention might knock Adele off the top of the charts this week, but Adele displayed more genuine chutzpah in one stripped-down song than Gaga packed into an entire arena concert.
Adele, now 23, sings with the confidence of a diva twice her age. Accompanied by the full band or sometimes just the pianist, she's expressive and emotive and present in every note. She seems utterly aware of what she's singing. Nothing is rote. During "Don't You Remember," as she sang, "I often think about where I went wrong," she stared into space, actually thinking -- so much that she almost lost the next line. She cracks herself up a lot, too, heaving great cackles when she held a note too long during a cover of "If It Hadn't Been For Love" by Nashville's Steel Drivers, or after singing "People say crazy things" during "Rumour Has It."
She says a few crazy things herself. She's very chatty, telling stories about swiping a sweaty tissue from a Beyonce concert or going guitar shopping Tuesday afternoon in Chicago and finding a Gretsch guitar she'd been looking for since she was 3. She received a smattering of applause when she asked if anyone was at her first Chicago show "in a bar" (probably June 2008 at Martyrs'). She introduced "Take It All," saying it was the first song she wrote for the second album and that The Boyfriend broke up with her a couple of weeks after she played it for him, thus inspiring the rest of the album's cathartic anguish and vengeance. No wonder her songs resonate so deeply with so many; they're about real people and real life. "My Same," she said, is about a loud, brassy friend. "I'm quite quiet actually," she said to contrast.
Hardly. Adele is a belter above all -- wielding a powerful but not overpowering voice that fuels rocket-powered songs such as "Set Fire to the Rain" and "Rolling in the Deep." It's not as effective an instrument when dialed down, though. "I'll Be Waiting" gave away a weakness in softness, and "Set Fire" became icy when she went into falsetto. But the overall majesty of her personality and the ace songs easily overcame any minor flaws. With the heavy production of the album stripped away, Adele shone brightly as a joyful talent with a lot to give.
Adele's Tuesday night set list:
"I'll Be Waiting"
"Don't You Remember"
"Set Fire to the Rain"
"If It Hadn't Been For Love"
"Take It All"
"Rumour Has It"
"Right as Rain"
"One and Only"
"Make You Feel My Love"
"Someone Like You"
"Rolling in the Deep"