(July 27, 2019) “Where y’all been?”
Those were the immediate reactions from the incomparable singer Oleta Adams after she polled the crowd at the beginning of her City Winery performance Thursday night to determine how many people were seeing her perform live for the first time.
As the number of hands raised clearly exceeded her expectations, she confidently proclaimed, “I’m making some new friends tonight.”
And so she did.
Oleta Adams, the incomparable 66-year-old contralto-voiced singer who emerged as a solo artist in the early 1990s as a late bloomer and who apparently isn’t gonna show any of the cracks that aging has brought the rest of us, wowed a crowd of several hundred fans for two-plus hours on a calm Thursday (July 25) evening here in Chitown.
It was part of her continuing tour of jazz clubs across America with a small entourage that includes a badass guitarist named James, a bassist named John and a very talented percussionist also named John.
The second John also happened to be her husband of nearly 25 years, John Cushon, who showed off his impressive skills on both the traditional drum set as well as an electronic hand drum, the cajon, with which he produced shaker and snare sounds at a rapid clip that showed he clearly has mastered the unique instrument.
Cushon’s mastery was a nod to the advancements in technology with instruments that weren’t always so cooperative at the show’s beginning.
As Adams sat at her electronic keyboard to kick things off, the instrument was clearly out of tune as she played the opening notes to her breakthrough album’s title track, “Circle of One.” Oleta was undaunted, however, as she continued to engage the crowd while troubleshooting the instrument and consulting with the sound engineers at the console in the back of the audience.
She eventually found the keys she wanted and proceeded with “Circle.” But as the tune finished, the “gremlins” – as Oleta called them – appeared again, this time in the form of amplified electronic feedback from either her keyboard or a microphone onstage.
It was at this point that Adams did what only a true singer could.
When a sympathetic audience member beckoned her to eschew the uncooperative instruments and sing a cappella, Adams acknowledged the request and did just that.
She launched into a stirring, impromptu a cappella version of the gospel hymn “Beams of Heaven,” written in the early 1900s by Charles Albert Tinley and recorded for her first gospel album, Come Walk With Me, in 1997.
It was the show’s first moment that let everyone there – including Adams – know that everything was gonna be alright.
And from that point on, there were no more gremlins or ghosts in the machine as the band played tunes from Adams considerable pop, jazz, R&B and gospel catalogue.
Next came another gospel tune, “Many Rivers To Cross,” followed by the Caribbean flavored “Something Inside So Strong,” then an instrumental jam session called “Swamp Song,” followed by Adams’ take on a soulful torch ballad Aretha Franklin once recorded during her Columbia Records days called “Only The Lonely.”
Then came the two best audience participation moments of the night.
On a cover of the fun Nina Simone song “Do I Move You?” (a tune included on Adams’ latest album, 2017’s Third Set), when she got to the line “the answer better be…,” the audience finished with “yeah, yeah” on her cue. She then polished it off with “that pleases me,” a line that likely reflected the singer’s overall mood on the evening.
On her cover of the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway classic “Where Is The Love?,” she sang both vocalists’ main parts. But when it came to the finish, the audience invited itself to participate in the call-and-response chorus, first with Adams leading and then – in a switch she prompted – with the very cooperative (and very good sounding) audience leading and Adams following, making it clear where the love was.
The messages of spirituality and love weren’t just limited to Adams’ song choices, though. She also delivered some heartfelt, poignant monologues between songs.
For instance, she took several timeouts to speak of the need for love, respect and inclusiveness at a time when all three seem to be in short supply and where divisiveness and hatred are abounding. While many people might not appreciate being delivered such a sermon during a musical concert, the messages Adams delivered appeared to resonate with audience members who gave her a big round of applause afterwards.
The music then continued with more great songs, including “Evolution” and my personal fave, “Rhythm of Life,” the latter being from that 1990 breakthrough album Circle of One. The arrangement on “Life” was more earthy than the polished-sounding, Tears For Fears-influenced original, but sounded good nonetheless.
Adams then went into her cover of Benard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change” (made famous by George Benson) before adding her third gospel tune of the night, the Grammy-nominated “Holy Is The Lamb” from her Come Walk With Me album.
Finally, she got to the song that put her on the map, the 1990 cover of Brenda Russell’s ballad “Get Here.”
What had started as a clever nod to the various modes of transportation that can close the distance between lovers, and ended as a Gulf War anthem during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, “Get Here” is still Adams’ signature tune nearly three decades later. On this night, she did a much slower take on it, providing lengthy pauses for dramatic effect.
With some in the audience likely expecting “Get Here” to be Oleta’s cue to get gone, several people left when the song finished. But those who stayed were treated to one more tune, the song “Wilted Roses” (also on her latest album).
And then it was over as Adams thanked the Chicago audience once more for embracing her so much on this mild night in the Windy City. She later appeared in the venue’s lobby to sign CDs, which were being sold there.
Adams had laid out only two ground rules at the show’s onset: 1) that people have themselves a good time; and 2) that she not find the whole show somewhere on YouTube, acknowledging that the former was more likely to occur than the latter.
Indeed, a good time was had by all.
Oleta Adams setlist for City Winery in Chicago on July 25, 2019:
- Circle of One
- Beams of Heaven, as I go (a cappella)
- Let’s Stay Here
- Many Rivers to Cross
- Something Inside So Strong
- Swamp Song
- Only The Lonely
- Do I Move You?
- Where Is The Love?
- Rhythm of Life
- Everything Must Change
- Holy is the Lamb
- Get Here
- Wilted Roses
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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