Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Adele Live in New York City (NBC-TV, filmed November 17, 2015, aired December 14, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Adele Live in New York City, an NBC-TV special taped at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on November 17, 2015 and aired December 14 (and kudos to NBC and producer Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live fame for being honest not only that the show was recorded earlier, but when) and featuring the great British songstress (whose speaking voice betrays a thick Cockney accent she’s almost totally purged from her singing voice) in a program of eight songs drawn from her new CD, Adele 25, as well as her previous releases, Adele 19 and the best-selling, multi-Grammy-winning Adele 21. (She seems to be carrying on the tradition established by Harry Connick, Jr. of naming each album after her age when she recorded it.) The first time I saw Adele on TV I fell in love with her immediately; not only did she have an old-fashioned voice, magnificently controlled and phrased and with killer high notes, but she wasn’t afraid to appear as a full-figured woman instead of looking like she just got released from Auschwitz. I still love her but there are a few “Yes, but’s” after last night’s show: she did eight songs and they tended to sound the same — all mid-tempo laments about malfunctioning relationships. She introduced “my man” from the stage and said he was attending one of her shows for the first time (which may be just because her Radio City show was her first public performance in two years), but director Beth McCarthy-Miller didn’t show him in the audience and he remained a spectral presence, invoked only for Adele to explain that now that she has a partner and is happy with him she no longer feels her big hit, “Someone Like You,” the way she did when she recorded it for Adele 21. A pity that so far her relationship hasn’t shaken from her a song about a love affair that’s actually working instead of one that’s totally on the rocks!

I still love Adele, and it’s nice to hear her current voice and find that the surgery she went through on her vocal cords shortly after her big splash with Adele 21 hasn’t hurt that spectacular voice any — she still sings in a beautiful, full-bodied manner, something like the early Barbra Streisand but without her stridency, and she’s still got those killer high notes. But as the Live in New York City show unrolled I got a bit bored by the sameness of the material (she didn’t do any of the fast songs she’s recorded, like “I’ll Be Waiting”) and her clear discomfort with such rock-star trappings as inviting the audience to sing one of the choruses themselves. Though Adele has achieved a major — and deserved — success, I found myself sad for her that she didn’t come of age when there was still a functioning nightclub scene, since she seems to me to be a great cabaret singer in an era when the cabarets have pretty much disappeared. It’s not Adele’s fault that since her spectacular emergence she’s been somewhat overshadowed (at least to me) by another pop singer who uses a single five-letter name, Lorde (who has a much less powerful and technically assured voice but sings a much wider variety of songs), or that the cavernous space of Radio City Music Hall forced her to overpower just about every song. She’s a sufficiently intelligent and aware performer to know that that huge space required her to sing at the virtual top of her voice (in volume, not range) throughout the entire show, with the only dynamic gradations possible being from loud to very-loud, and the reason I’m so sorry for her that she came of age decades after the time of the great nightclubs is that she really needs a small, intimate venue to tame her tendency towards excess and cultivate a quieter, subtler style. But in an age in which just about everyone else on the charts is singing to dance grooves and sacrificing melody and harmony on the great altar of rhythm (I’m getting really tired of hearing singers like Mary J. Blige do what the late Donna Summer did: begin her songs with slow, out-of-tempo introductions that show off the eloquence with which they could phrase, then switch on the drum machines, speed up their songs to “dance” tempi and be forced to spit out the notes with sledgehammer regularity and without any eloquence or subtlety), kudos for Adele and her ability to make it on her own terms, with songs that reflect her rather than some über-producer or D.J., and where the aural drama comes from the sheer power and drama of her voice rather than gimmicks or studio tricks.