Emeli Sande has hit it big in England over the last couple of years. She won as the Best Breakthrough Act at the Brit Awards in 2011, and released her debut album, Our Version of Events, to critical acclaim and commercial success in 2012. She performed at the opening and closing ceremonies of the summer Olympics, sold more albums than any other English artist in 2012 (Our Version of Events spent most of the year in the English top ten), and then won Best Female Solo Artist and British Album of the Year at another Brit Awards ceremony. Though her presence has not been felt to the same extent in America, the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica named Our Version of Events the best album of 2012. Now she is capitalizing on her success — or maybe show Americans what they’re missing — by releasing a live album recorded at the famous Royal Albert Hall. Adele put out a similar release last year, but, of course, Adele is already a household name both in the States and the UK.
Sande is a potent singer, capable of fire and defiance and explosions in one moment, tragedy and despondency and heart-rending melancholy the next. She can wail over a band cranking at full speed, or whisper and plead over a quiet string instrument. Sometimes she channels Beyonce’s world-conquering brassiness (coincidentally, early in her career, Sande toured as the support act for Beyonce’s sister Solange).
On Live at the Royal Albert Hall, Sande is frequently aided by backing vocalists who add coloring harmonies and additional depth, acting as an appealing counterweight to Sande’s lead. On “My Kind of Love”, they perfectly answer Sande’s feverish call of “That’s When I feel” with a strong, reverential “My kind of love”. With the active back-up, the performance often takes on gospel tinges. When she wants, Sande flexes a little bit of muscle. “Pluto” rides thunderous drumming, while “Heaven” speeds along over a crisp break beat. When Sande isn’t working things up to churchy crescendos, she likes to sing over minimal instrumentation — acoustic strums, or a string section, often without bass or drumming. She tells the audience, “The one place where I’m really myself is when I’m with my piano”, and plays a series of songs on that instrument (which she named Iris).
The performance plays like a jubilant victory lap after Sande’s year atop the charts. She covers her hero Nina Simone, taking a crack at Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be You”, and she brings out Professor Green, an English rapper who collaborated with Sande on a big hit in the UK, “Read All About It”. There’s a song dedicated to Sande’s sister (“Breaking The Law”), and another to her new husband (“Next to Me”). There’s plenty of corny banter with the audience about how they can achieve anything if they try. And everywhere there’s Sande’s voice, strong enough to earn her this victory lap, and hopefully flexible and exciting enough to give her the opportunities for several more.