Live review: Adele, Wanda Jackson at the Greek Theatre
Rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson had a prediction as she stood on the stage of the Greek Theatre on Monday night as opening act for young British soul singer Adele. The razor sharp, still ferocious Jackson, 73, whose bookending career highlights came at the hands of Elvis Presley in 1955 and Jack White in 2009, fawned over Adele, a singer 50-plus years her junior but whose music draws from the wellspring that Jackson helped tap: “You are going to be royally entertained, you really will be,” said Jackson, still a lightning bolt of a singer herself.
Those who had never seen Adele perform could be forgiven for focusing on the “royally” of Jackson’s promise. Adele’s breakout album, "21,” is a focused, refined update on, and ode to, American soul, rhythm and blues, jazz, country and the myriad combinations thereof, and the singer delivers it on record with a grace, power and elegance that captures the heartbreak within. It's easy to imagine her toiling away on her music in a canopy bed in a turret somewhere, a broken flower, heartbroken, alone and wailing.
But what Adele gave to the sold-out Greek crowd was entertainment pure and simple, the old-fashioned kind that combines humor, good cheer, honesty, drama, emotion and the occasional double-fingered gesture to punctuate the end of a song. Over the course of 16 tracks -- roughly the same set, in the same order, she's been performing since she began touring in support of "21" in 2010 -- the singer born to a single teenage mother in North London in 1988 -- presented Los Angeles with a disarmingly open and, at times, thrilling, show.
The first of two make-up gigs in Los Angeles for shows she was forced to cancel earlier this year after developing laryngitis while on the road (she plays the Palladium on Wednesday), the singer, now 23, moved through all the songs that have made her "21" the top-selling album of the year and "Rolling in the Deep" a rallying cry for anyone who's ever had a heart -- apparently most of the 6,000-plus Angelenos singing and dancing along to every furious word to her set-closing classic.
Between songs, she chatted and cackled as though we were sitting around her kitchen table; she confided that half of her perfectly coifed Loretta Lynn-circa-1965 hair was a wig, that her wiener dog was named Louis Armstrong and that for Christmas he'll get a sister named Ella Fitzgerald, and that the moment the tour is over, she's going to start drinking again -- and she couldn't wait.
She was a British Bette Midler, a would-be "Absolutely Fabulous" character who at one point stopped the show to find out how many paragliders were in the audience (more than you'd expect -- or not, considering the locale).
Adele was backed by a five-piece band (two guitars, bass, drum and keyboards, along with two backing vocalists and the occasional banjo and lap-steel guitar) who conjured the feel of classic Atlantic and Stax sides, and understood the instrumentation's role as foundation for the voice. The singer has only two albums of material to draw from, so there were few opportunities for set-list surprises.
In fact, she nixed the one tease of an unplanned musical moment. As she was introducing her quiet cover of the Cure's "Lovesong," Adele confided that she'd nearly covered INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart" instead. A forceful crowd pleaded with her to sing it, but the artist willfully shut us down and moved into the Cure as planned. In a few more years, maybe she'll have developed the confidence to chase those moments.
Throughout the night, her spontaneity and openness lasted only until the music began; then it was all business, and she moved through a precisely structured sequence of songs that showcased the many nuances of her voice, powerful but not yet Earth-shattering, with control to burn but still learning how to phrase for maximum impact. She needs a few more years of simmering and maybe a couple more broken hearts before that's remedied.
Adele captured the subtle, forlorn glory of "Take It All," a piano and voice song of regret, and the raucous throwdown that is "Rumour Has It." The crowd, maybe 75% female, sang along to the latter revenge fantasy: "She made your heart melt/But you're cold to the core/Now rumour has it/She ain't got your love anymore."
Each song was a perfect reflection of the recording: Her first American hit, "Chasing Pavements," was delivered with the same inflections as on record, but augmented with a chorus of about 6,000 singing along. "Someone Like You," the first of two encore songs and one destined to be played at homecoming dances for the next decade, was captured with the intimacy of a coffee shop performance.
She peppered her set with the three covers she’s performed all tour: The Steeldrivers’ “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” the Cure’s “Lovesong” and Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love." The latter song she dedicated to Amy Winehouse, and her voice broke as she conveyed the impact the late singer had had on her music.
It's probably true, as Adele said, that she wouldn't have been standing on the Greek's stage, wouldn't have moved over the last four years from the Hotel Cafe to the Roxy to the Wiltern to the Hollywood Bowl to two sold-out gigs at the Greek and the Palladium had it not been for hearing Winehouse's "Frank" when it arrived in 2003.
But more true is that Adele, like Winehouse, is part of continuum that started way before either of them was born, one that exists in the voice of not only Wanda Jackson but also Dusty Springfield, Sarah Vaughan, Ann Peebles, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige and dozens of others.
That Winehouse tapped into that continuum and led Adele to it doesn't diminish the impact that the latter superstar has had on music in 2011. Every once in a while, American popular culture needs to be reminded of the bounty in our past, and usually, it's a team of Brits doing the invading and updating. Here's hoping that like the best of the earlier invaders, Adele's career follows meandering paths as fascinating and surprising.
-- Randall Roberts
Photos: Adele at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on Monday. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.