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At Adele's Vegas residency, intimacy is the ultimate luxury

In the controlled stillness of a theater stage-managed to match her songs' swirling moods, Adele seems to have found her place at last.
Kevin Mazur
/
Getty Images for AD
In the controlled stillness of a theater stage-managed to match her songs' swirling moods, Adele seems to have found her place at last.

There was a cruel poetry to Adele's tear-soaked Instagram post announcing the postponement of her inaugural Las Vegas residency early last year. On Jan. 20, 2022, the night before the first concert in her six-month season was due to begin, Adele cried on camera, citing production delays and COVID-19 outbreaks among her crew as she issued a broken-voiced judgment: "My show ain't ready." Fans who had already traveled to Caesars Palace accepted FaceTime calls from the star and stocked up on consolation prizes from the gift shop turned memorial. The last-minute cancellation of the costly production engendered messy tabloid speculations of diva behavior and backstage rows. Two months into the release cycle for her fourth album, 30, Adele seemed to disappear. Minimal explanations, prompt refunds and promises of rescheduling followed.

Sadly, I had seen this film before. Beyond her blockbuster trilogy of bildungsroman LPs, my personal fandom for Adele was cemented in seeing her perform live. In 2011, as a young producer on All Things Considered, I escorted her from an interview to her Tiny Desk concert, which she opened with one of the first live performances of the devastating "Someone Like You." I was there when she began her 21 tour a few months later at D.C.'s 9:30 Club with songs already too anthemic to fit such a small venue. Then, six years ago, I flew to London with my partner to see the British superstar close her 25 world tour — which I had already seen stateside — with a four-night series of hometown concerts. Just hours before we were scheduled to share the experience with 98,000 others at Wembley Stadium, the artist canceled her final two performances due to vocal stress.

To be clear, Adele has always had a fraught relationship with the physical and emotional costs of touring; she suffered a serious vocal injury during the release of 21 that required surgery. And in an age of extremely visible celebrity, she has also remained largely offline and deeply private. When she returned with 30 and its quieter themes of adulting and self-care in 2021, she was certainly not someone I expected to join the post-pandemic touring economy in all its newly exuberant relentlessness.

If there's a visual culture emergent in touring pop concerts in 2023, it's a kaleidoscopic, frazzled aesthetic designed to be Instagrammed. That level of spectacle could be a natural byproduct of years of locked-down isolation, a hypothesis that only IMAX-scale entertainment is enough to get people out of their homes. But whether it's Beyoncé rising into the Dubai skies or Taylor Swift selling out national stadia in an era-spanning extravaganza, the possibilities and expectations for pop pyrotechnics have reached Marvel dimensions, along with the associated costs. Never mind that Live Nation, which governs America's concert industry and so successfully extracts fees from fandom, posted record profits in 2022. For artists staring down ballooning tour budgets, mental health fatigue from endless schedules and the continuing hazards of COVID-19, and for the sticker-shocked fans caught in an ongoing game of Ticketmaster roulette, live music has enjoyed a less than triumphant revival. Amid all this, is there any room left for an unforgettable concert experience?

Enter the queen of heartbreak. When Adele launched 30 in 2021 with a TV special filmed in front of Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills, the tone was set for a confident and happy return to public stardom. The residency, announced soon after, read as a promising fit: Despite the challenges she'd previously encountered on the road, she's far too popular to leave touring income off the table entirely, and with higher ticket prices and lower operational costs, Las Vegas seemed like a sustainable balance between label ambitions and audience access. Plus, as her era's foremost chart-smashing torch singer, it seemed only right that she'd take on the house Celine Dion built: The Colosseum at Caesars Palace, where Dion's blockbuster residency began to shift the city's reputation from a has-been's haven to a second home for the right kind of mid-career pop star.

And so, the unraveling of Adele's Vegas run became what she has since described as her lowest professional moment. In comments to the press, she has acknowledged that her own standards of presentation played a major role: She told the BBC last summer that she canceled the dates because she refused to "wing it" as many of her peers do, and in an August interview with Elle Magazine, she said the original version of her Las Vegas shows lacked intimacy and humanity.

Last November, Adele finally returned to the Colosseum stage to mount "Weekends with Adele," a reimagining of the show she'd promised, right-sized for the particulars of her music and temperament. Through a stroke of ticketing fortune, I made my inaugural journey to Vegas with my 74-year-old father to see her once again. After scaling up to arenas and stadiums like her peers, it's in the controlled stillness of a theater stage-managed to match her songs' swirling moods that Adele seems to have found her place at last.

In the absence of explosive crescendos, there is a new level of control and mastery of her instrument on <em>30</em>, and it's unsurprising that her voice has never sounded better onstage.
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for AD
/
Getty Images for AD
In the absence of explosive crescendos, there is a new level of control and mastery of her instrument on 30, and it's unsurprising that her voice has never sounded better onstage.

Caesars Palace seats approximately 4,300, and even at its highest reaches there is an enclosed proximity to the space. "Weekends with Adele" makes that intimacy feel luxurious, though not with sprawling sets or scores of dancers: She might be in Vegas, but she hasn't gone Vegas. Instead, each production choice gently bends the possibilities of the place to her own brand. The stagecraft is minimal and sleek, modernizing the touches (scarlet drapes, a generous string section) that would usually evoke a vintage revue. The stage itself is designed as a curtain of accordion-like panels that form the letter A, beneath which the band and backing vocalists glide seamlessly on moving platforms. Adele, dressed in a different couture black gown each weekend, is always on her feet. When the show begins, she emerges from the A to join pianist Eric Wortham II for the first set of ballads, beginning with "Hello." As the show proceeds into her rarer up-tempo hits, including "Water Under the Bridge," all the screens are activated, curtains fully opened, and the entire theater bathed in shifting color palettes. "Easy on Me" is accompanied by a coral green, "Water Under the Bridge" a radiant blue and "I Drink Wine" with champagne reds.

And the focus is singular — a voice in close-up. A series of projections of her face appear along all the walls of the theater, so that there are many Adeles always standing among and before you, an effect that mirrors the cover design of her four albums. At center stage, the real Adele puts finely tuned physicality into every lyric, eyes rolling and hands raised, performing shade and desire as live cinema. 30 is a traditional vocal record at its heart: Its lead single, "Easy on Me," produced no TikTok dance trends I'm aware of. In the absence of explosive crescendos, there is a new level of control and mastery of her instrument on 30, and it's unsurprising that her voice has never sounded better onstage. Knowing that she has generally recorded her own backing vocals in the studio made for one of my favorite arrangements in the show, when she lets her trio of backup singers take the lead on the 21 standout "One and Only" and performs the 21 track's haunting, operatic background parts herself, under a dimmed spotlight.

Adele has always seemed disconnected from her generation of stars: old-fashioned in spirit and strategy, largely absent from social media. As New York Times critic Jon Pareles explained on an episode of Popcast, she's a holdover from the pre-streaming monoculture and a CD-era music industry, whose ballgown presentation and songbook all feel aggressively disconnected from the new frontiers of globalizing pop. She may have arrived at the height of London's 2000s soul-pop zeitgeist, but at this stage, her lyrics of nostalgia, regret and self-forgiveness feel aged. Which is precisely why I found her Vegas performance so moving: She is an artist of emotional archives, so it's thrilling to see her breathing new life, new drama, into her catalog. Even when the set list drew heavily from the archives of 19 or 21, each live arrangement felt urgent. "Weekends with Adele" is a technical marvel of screens and sound, but it was how comfortable the artist seemed onstage — how self-possessed and in command of her powers — that made the residency so transcendent.

In the final stretch of the show's more than two-hour set list, dozens of illuminated lanterns come down from the rafters to bathe the theater in flickering light as Adele sings the soaring chorus of "Hold On," one of 30's several ballads of healing and self-regard. Beyond divorce and single motherhood, in that moment Adele seemed to be granting herself some catharsis for the creative struggles and failures of her past year. Holding back tears, she shared in one of her interludes that this residency was the happiest she had ever been onstage, and had affirmed that while she might not be a touring artist right now, she could indeed be a live artist.

It hasn't always been easy to be a fan of Adele the live performer, and it might be a stretch to say that "Weekends with Adele" has made the experience accessible. There are only so many seats to be had across its 17 weekends (though there are rumors that the dates may be extended), and those with tickets also take on the not-so-hidden costs of travel and lodging. But in the context of a chaotic and punitive concert economy, she's delivered an evening worth the wait. The show saves its most Vegas moment for the finale, as Adele vanishes in a shower of confetti during "Love Is a Game" while the screens promise that this moment is only "The Beginning." As the house lights came up, I reached down for some of the maroon and pink paper hearts that had fallen at our feet. Printed among the handwritten "Bye Babes" and "XO" missives were the words, "Better late than never."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bilal Qureshi