Tuesday 31 May marked the long awaited return to the London stage of the legendary Helen Folasade Adu and band, better known as Sade. Ms Adu is a veritable prodigal daughter in touring terms anyway, having last played these shores in 1993. Although she claims to enjoy performing, her nearly-20 year absence from the UK live scene indicates otherwise.

Arriving at the O2 this late spring evening, I am pleasantly surprised to see such a cross section of ages and backgrounds making up the Sade faithful; not unlike the sort of crowd that attended her musical male equivalent, Maxwell’s comeback gig in 2009. The band has been well noted for their ability to draw a diverse audience, one that mirrors the multicultural line-up of Sade itself. Yet I’m not entirely sure what to expect on the night.

Sade’s relationship with the UK- both media and listening audience-has been a complicated one. Following their initial breakthrough in the early-mid ‘80s Britain’s reaction to Sade appeared to gradually cool. With the exception of ‘By Your Side’ (peak chart position number 17) none of the singles from the bands last two albums have troubled the UK Top 40. And they were generally always underrated by a clueless rock-focused British music press.

Much of Sade’s enduring success is attributed to the loyalty of their American fanbase. Too many individuals I’ve come across, even so-called fans, are familiar enough with the reputation Sade garnered from their phenomenal ’80s success but struggle to name more than one or two songs. These are almost invariably the hit singles from the first two albums, Diamond Life and Promise.

Encountering this kind of unawareness of Sade’s material I was apprehensive about their one and only London date. There was also the apparent unsuitability of the O2 as a venue. Sade’s music is of the quiet storm variety, more easily associated with intimate settings. A journalist friend remarked that some of the fans she knew weren’t keen on seeing the band play an arena. Could they even fill the place? The Indigo yes, but the O2? I feared that, after such a sporadic output within the last 20 years, Adu and co might have been forsaken by their home town. A British soul artist is not without honour except in their own country, after all.

I needn’t have worried. As soon as we exit North Greenwich tube station, the O2 pullulates with Sade-related activity. Joining one of the long queues at the box office to pick up my comp, I spot one of her backing vocalists, soul singer Tony Momrelle doing an impromptu meet-and-greet session with those lining up. Eventually finding my seat (with a mercifully decent view of the stage), I catch the tail end of the support act, ska/reggae outfit The Jolly Boys doing their take on Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’. Afterwards the crowd is kept company by Soul, R&B and Hip Hop classics past and present – Quincy Jones’ ‘Strawberry Letter’, Prince’s original version of ‘I Feel For You’, Dwele and J Dilla’s ‘Angel’, A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Bonita Applebum’…

To my right a pregnant woman rubs her belly absent-mindedly; initiation into Sade’s world begins early for her unborn, obviously. To my far left, in the row in front sits popular R&B DJ Trevor Nelson. At least half an hour elapses since the Jolly Boys finished their set but the audience don’t seem to mind the delay, several of them still leisurely streaming in from the bar. There are cheers when Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ blasts from the speakers, many in attendance start singing along enthusiastically.

At nearly half past nine the arena goes ominously dark and the recognisable drum pattern of ‘Soldier of Love’ starts up. A few flashing red lights and dried ice effects later, Sade is elevated from beneath the stage looking every bit the elegant goddess that she is. She follows her opening number with a little self-deprecation… “It’s taken us 18 years to rehearse for tonight… I think we’re ready for you now.” She flashes her radiant, normally elusive smile the first of many times.

She then launches into ‘Your Love Is King’ to rapturous applause. The crowd supplies makeshift backing vocals-yours truly amongst them. Stuart Matthewman looks sexy as ever working his tenor sax. The multi-talented Leroy Osbourne -almost as much a definitive part of the Sade sound as the main lady herself-alternates between backing vocals and playing his flute.

I whoop delightedly when the band performs ‘Skin,’ arguably the best song on the Soldier of Love album. The bass sounds especially fierce thanks to some technical problems. Matthewman dazzles again with a rocking guitar solo.

I notice that Sade’s sound fills the O2 unexpectedly well, considering the laidback nature of their groove. The overall spectacle is impressive too. There’s plenty of visual stimulation to complement the audio; silhouettes dancing furiously are projected onto the back of the stage during ‘Love Is Found,’ confetti falls from the ceiling for the finale; rare footage of the band larking around during video shoots forms the backdrop of some of the numbers… ‘Kiss of Life’ is accompanied by images of Sade frolicking in a picturesque garden. The signature huskiness remains intact; her voice wrapping itself around the listener like a reassuring dream.

No question, Sade sounds as good live as she does on wax. There’s also an insouciance to her performance tonight that suggests she’s a lot more comfortable on stage than past live footage conveys. True, she’s still not given to bantering much with her audience but it’s wonderful to observe her otherwise so at ease. She even manages to infuse a little something special into Soldier of Love’s ‘In Another Time’- a song that usually leaves me feeling resolutely underwhelmed.

A dramatic intro and costume change precedes one of Sade’s most adored hits, the superb ‘Smooth Operator.’ The crowd applaud excitedly but stay rooted to their seats. Next up is another sparse and pensive Sade anthem, ‘Jezebel’ on which she continues to demonstrate how much she’s grown vocally since it was first recorded in 1985. She does much the same on another crowd favourite (but not one of mine) ‘Is it a crime?’ Anyone who’s seen clips of Sade’s live shows from the last ten years will know she really pushes herself beyond the vocal limitations of which she’s been accused by critics. Her heartfelt wail at the end of ‘…Crime?’ is met with a standing ovation.

We then sit politely through a few of the filler tracks from the band’s catalogue before they liven things up again with ‘Paradise’. I hope this is not the only tune they’ll reprise from one of their best but most underrated albums ‘Stronger than Pride,’ having neglected it somewhat on the previous Lover’s Live US tour. This time they don’t disappoint. ‘Paradise’ flows seamlessly into ‘Nothing Can Come Between Us’ – a track I merely dared wish would make the set list. Osborne and Momrelle take over lead vocals, readily convincing all those who aren’t already on their feet to dance and sing as loud as possible.

Things get introspective once more with the beautifully delicate ‘Morning Star’ another highlight from Soldier of Love. Sade looks resplendent in pearl white, her features framed glamorously by a thick black mane. Continuing the melancholy mood, Sade sings the magnificent‘King of Sorrow’, a selection that ironically gets a very cheerful response. No one needs to be coaxed to their feet for ‘The Sweetest Taboo.’ Sade and the boys really let loose on this Latin-flavoured classic. There’s more sombre reflection to come in the form of ‘The Moon and the Sky’ and the poignantly epic ‘Pearls.’ Showcasing Sade at her lyrical and vocal optimum, it’s a song that never loses its power no matter how many times it is rendered.

The O2 erupts on hearing the first few bars of ‘No Ordinary Love;’ ‘By Your Side’ receives a similar reaction. I’ve never quite understood why this track is so popular amongst certain Sade fans. It’s pleasant enough but not representative of their best.

An hour and a half passes by imperceptibly. The concert reaches its finale. Sade affectionately re-introduces each band member before thanking the audience and dashing off stage. Surely, I ask myself, they can’t leave without performing ‘Cherish the Day’? Of course not. Ms Adu squeezes in yet another wardrobe change for the encore; vivacious red this time. Half way through ‘Cherish…’ she is lifted above stage level on a pedestal; a symbolic gesture very few artists could get away with. But this is Sade. She is in a league of her own.

Adu and the fellows have always had an inscrutable appeal about them. You can put some of it down to the timeless music, the lead singer’s inimitable voice, iconic beauty and poise or the fact that for over 25 years they’ve done exactly what they liked creatively without obsessing over current trends. Yet this enigmatic Sade quality is greater than the sum of its parts. As hard as it is to properly define, it somehow crystallises in their live set, creating a truly magical experience. We love you Ms Adu and crew…so no more buggering off for decades at a time please.

Photo credit: Sade photographed in Nice by Gabriel Coutu Dumont