Emeli Sandé at the Varsity, 1/23/13

Emeli Sandé at the Varsity, 1/23/13
Photo by Natalie Gallagher

Emeli Sandé
with Emily King
Varsity Theater, Minneapolis
Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What is it, like, a rule that every female singer to come out of the U.K. has to take over the pop music world? As if Adele wasn't enough, there is now a new force in the game: Emeli Sandé, a powerhouse vocalist who combines the just right amount vulnerability with a nonchalant authority in her music. The Scotland-born Sandé was gaining traction in the U.K. by mid 2011, and it seems that now, finally, the singer is ready to take the U.S. market by storm--starting with her first major U.S. tour.

Last night at the Varsity, Sandé wasted no time on build-ups. The singer-songwriter opened up with her dynamic hit single "Heaven," showing off a vocal dexterity that would only grow more impressive as the night continued. Only five songs into her set -- by the time "Suitcase" debuted -- there were already audience members wiping away tears. It seems like that's Sandé's main theme: Get in touch with your sad, lonely side and let it all hang out -- loudly. No one seemed to have a problem with that, as the sold-out crowd knew all the lyrics to Sandé's songs. The 25-year-old artist had the audience mesmerized from the start.

Emeli Sandé at the Varsity, 1/23/13
Photo courtesy of the author

Sandé, whose debut Our Version Of Events was 2012's number one album in the U.K., paused between songs for dedications -- to her sister, to her parents, to the critics, to people who had made her stronger or better. For an artist who won the BRIT Critic's Choice Award (and had three other BRIT noms), who performed at the opening and closing Olympics ceremonies, Sandé was remarkably humble. She was backed by a sparse four-piece which was there more as a backdrop to her stunning vocals than as a supporting band.

Even Sandé's style was understated: the star was wearing a crewneck sweater, a calf-length pencil skirt, and some modest platform lace-up shoes. It was clear Sandé was more concerned with her performance than her appearance. She looked lovely, of course, but unlike so many successful pop music acts today, it was clear that Sandé's image was not the focal point, driving home the fact that unlike so many high-profile pop acts, Sandé doesn't need a strategic dress or shoes to make an impression and get someone's attention. All she has to do is open her mouth and sing.

There wasn't a low point in the evening. Instead, it was as if the progression of songs in Sandé's repertoire continued to reach increasingly high points: a "sunshine," reggae-fied version of "Where I Sleep," and acoustic-soul version of "Suitcase" sang to bass only, a stirring "Clown" with Sandé sitting down to the piano, an all-powerful "Wonder" with the audience mimicking the "W" hand signs back to the stage, and a riotous encore in "Read All About It."

There's something to be said for the U.K. version of powerhouse pop stars that we've been seeing of late: unlike so many of their U.S. counterparts, the emphasis on "star" has been less and less -- at least from the stage. Even as Sandé's vocals shook the Varsity, she thanked the crowd for "taking a chance on new music." As if there was a decision.

Emeli Sandé at the Varsity, 1/23/13
Photo courtesy of the author

Critic's bias: I loved Emeli Sandé's voice from the moment I heard her. I'm not pretending. But a lot of these pop kids can be so disappointing in real life, so I wasn't holding my breath. Except then she was as amazing as I hoped she would be. Times a million.

The crowd: Young, predominantly female. Some couples. Everyone fanatically approving.

Overheard in the crowd: Multiple shouts of "Sing it, girl!" and "Yeah, you play it!" and "Break it down, girl!" and other such variations.

Random notebook dump: Shame to dump Emily King in a postscript, because the girl really does deserve her own entry. A fantastic R&B/soul vocalist from New York, truly a gem on stage--and with a vocal style that just comes out of nowhere. What King doesn't have in the Diva Department, she well makes up for in the Edge Department. One to watch for, definitely.

Random notebook dump, Part II: In case you didn't know, Sandé's first name is actually Adele. But, you know, someone already took that name, so she went with her middle, Emeli.

Emeli Sandé at the Varsity, 1/23/13
Photo courtesy of the author

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