Fifteen thousand people filled Denver's Pepsi Center last night, the first of two instantly sold-out nights at the arena, yet British singer-songwriter Adele made the room feel as intimate as a barroom cabaret. The gifted vocalist built her performance not on showcasing elaborate set pieces or her soaring ballads, but on the premise of breaking down barriers between the audience and star.
Because Adele is decidedly a massive star. She's a supergiant, luminous as hell. Her album sales and acclaim are enormous, her hits beginning to stack up like monuments in mainstream pop. It's hard to forget how big she is, and how ubiquitous her presence on the radio feels, even though she has only dropped an album every few years with the heavy intention of someone rolling away the stone. The international popularity of Adele may be why, walking through the metal detectors with the rest of the well-heeled, made-up masses, I wondered how seeing this music performed live could be any more meaningful than belting out “HALLO from the other SIIIIDE” inside my car's glass case of emotion.
Then I met Adele.
She appeared out of the dark in a sparkling black gown, her face remarkably perfect with her '60s-style thick lashes and cat-eyes, her expressive pout. “Hello,” she said.
Okay, she was on a stage in the center of the floor, a close-up of her eyeliner was splashed fifty feet high on a screen, and I didn't actually meet her. Yet from the jump, Adele seemed to make herself as accessible as a person can be in the center of thousands of adoring fans. Mid-way through her opening song – “Hello,” obviously – she walked through the crowd on the floor to another stage backed by her band and a big screen, but still surrounded on three sides by fans, letting loose her effortless, note-perfect voice and full-throttle melisma.
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What followed was close to two hours of “an evening with Adele,” during which she chatted to the audience between every song, explaining the story behind them and cracking jokes. The whole concert carried a vintage air, a combination of what I imagine was the fierce authenticity of Nina Simone and the irreverent flair of the Rat Pack. The throwback setup of the show – no pyro, costume changes or holograms – may speak to the somewhat premature nostalgia of Adele's songwriting. Her set list included “Million Years Ago” and “When We Were Young,” both from her most recent album, 25, which is how old she was when writing it.
Adele is 28 now, but is clearly an old soul and preternaturally wise. During the show, it seemed that she filled the empty seat beside me (I came alone, the better to commune with Adele) as a best friend who keeps it real, auntie (she's two years younger than me), and maven of the corner pub. Here's some of the best advice we received from Adele last night:
On toxic relationships: “Who here has someone in their life that they wish – wasn't? Some people are just annoying.”
On self-image: “Normally I look like Halle Berry, but I was pregnant.”
On growing up: “Now that I am an adult, I'm not so sure I want to be.”
On Beyonce: “I'm obsessed. I love her deep and I love her hard.”
On Bed Bath & Beyond: “Get an app, oh, my God.”
On commitment: “I'm settled down. Well, we're not married. I don't know why we're not.”
On fame: “I can't say the word 'hello' anymore with my friends.”
On community: “Look behind you and see how beautiful you look.”
On heartbreak: “I thought I'd never love again, that there'd never be anyone else. But there always is, we always do. It's always okay again.”
Though elements of her performance feel “classic,” she's a thoroughly modern personality. Adele curses with very little apology; she gushes over motherhood, but admits that's not what fans want to hear her sing about; she invites fans to the stage for selfies. At one point, back on the stage in the center of the floor, she encouraged audience members to crowd closer and then worked her way around the rectangle to pose for photos, pulling silly faces, bending over and singing Christina Milian's “dip it low/pick it up slow.”
The one true cover in her set list is Bob Dylan's “Make You Feel My Love,” which Adele called “perfect, somehow heartbreaking and mending,” and dedicated to her partner, whom she was missing. Adele recorded the piano ballad for her 2008 album, 19, (when she was nineteen!), and her versions are so glorious that the song might as well be hers now and forever. She said, “It's nice doing somebody else's song because I can interpret it with whatever I'm feeling that day.” While in the video of her original rendition of the song, she expresses it as a lonely 4 a.m. last-ditch call to a lover with little hope of requital, last night the song became a steady pledge to reach across distances.
Perhaps that's the key to the sense of Adele's timelessness – her ability to fully embody a moment. Though her lyrics often strike me as rather generic (and therefore ideal for driver's-seat belting), last night in concert, songs were imbued with unexpected meanings, often beyond the heartache of a breakup. On “Hometown Glory,” the big screens shifted from images of Adele's hands and South London to choreographed aerial views of Denver itself, with Adele changing the lyrics: “'Round your hometown/ memories are fresh/'Round your hometown/Ooh, the people you've met/Are the wonders of this world.” The panning shots of new construction and the Rockies rising in the distance were especially poignant amid current controversy surrounding Denver's abrupt development and cultural upheaval.
At another point, Adele said she would like to dedicate a song to the people of Nice, and yet since her tour began, she's dedicated songs to people affected by five separate terrorist attacks in different parts of the world. While she'd spent the entire concert making the audience feel like we were in a small enough club that she could see us when we waved to her, the invocation of the recent attacks in Nice, Orlando, Brussels, Istanbul and elsewhere was an alarming reminder of the vulnerability of a large crowd. Adele introduced “Someone Like You” as a song she wrote after a terrible breakup, when she needed “something to call my own,” and saying she thinks it could be the one song she's remembered for. In this way, the moment was also a reminder of the human need to come together like this – for celebration, music, connection – while belting bravely in unison what we would normally scream into our pillows. “Come on,” Adele said, offering a last bit of wisdom, “let's sing it like desperadoes.”
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2. Hometown Glory
3. One and Only
4. Rumour Has It
5. Water Under the Bridge
7. Million Years Ago
8. Send My Love (To Your New Lover)
9. Make You Feel My Love
10. Sweetest Devotion
11. Chasing Pavements
12. Someone Like You
13. Set Fire to the Rain
14. When We Were Young
15. Rolling in the Deep