Gig review: Emeli Sande at First Direct Arena, Leeds

Emeli Sande at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Richard Nicholson
Emeli Sande at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Richard Nicholson
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It’s sometimes easy to forget how ubiquitous Emeli Sande was on the musical landscape five years ago.

Her debut record Our Version of Events racked up the best sales of 2012; she starred in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the London Olympics; she swept both the BRIT Awards and the Ivor Novellos. Half-a-decade on, the Scottish songstress has not recaptured the commercial adoration garnered upon her first album with the second; sophomore outing Long Live the Angels stalled behind Olly Murs last November.

Emeli Sande at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Richard Nicholson

Emeli Sande at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Richard Nicholson

But shorn of her iconoclastic peroxide blonde quiff at Leeds’s First Direct Arena, on her first major-venue tour of the UK, she remains a powerhouse vocalist and presence, bringing a slickly honed collection of soul and a well-drilled showmanship more indebted to James Brown than Justin Timberlake.

As pop spectaculars go, the Scottish songstress’s staging is relatively lean when lined up against other chart-conquering jaunts. Her music does not typically lend itself to sexed-up choregraphed glitz and gimmickry, but her immaculately white-suited big band and a brace of frosted cubic screens that beam stock vista imagery don’t leave production values lacking. They accentuate the bigger, bolder numbers to high-kitsch levels of entertainment; Hurts, with its symphonic ruminations on desolate heartbreak, arrives with the subtlety of a James Bond theme, gargantuan and epic, whilst My Kind of Love sashays in on Destiny’s Child-esque R&B harmonies and stadium-size drums. Breathing Underwater meanwhile channels the kind of majestic gospel noise Aretha Franklin and George Michael would have been all over twenty-five years ago; a sweeping singalong brushed with holy light.

It’s her pared-back forays away from the more massive flourishes where she is truly arresting, mining low-slung southern grit and Tracy Chapman-style neo-folk in between the ballads. Free, her collaboration with Rudimental, is recast as muted funk; Lonely plays out over scratchy acoustic guitars and pearls of organ.

Half-a-dozen songs are tenderly played out in piano-solo form; Clown, Beneath You’re Beautiful, the captivating Read All About It, Part III.

Emeli Sande at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Richard Nicholson

Emeli Sande at First Direct Arena, Leeds. Picture: Richard Nicholson

By the time her brass-three-piece has hot-stepped their way in formation across stage like The Blues Brothers during the feelgood Seventies groove of Highs and Lows and Next to Me, 8,000 people are shimmying in their seats.

Sande has gone about things her own way rather than at the behest of convention; so far, it looks set to pay off artistically, if not to those omnipresent heights once scaled before.