Review: Oleta Adams

(Above: “Get Here” brought down the house at Oleta Adams’ recent homecoming concert in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Oleta Adams took the stage of Gem Theater on Saturday night with a smile and an apology.

“I’m sorry I’m dressed this way,” she said, wearing a stunning, strapless, turquoise dress. “I thought it was supposed to be spring.”

It would take more than a dumping of out-of-season snow to keep the nearly full house from seeing its hometown girl. For more than two hours, the singer, who was a staple of the local jazz scene in the 1980s, indulged them with stories, a wide selection of songs, and surprises.

The evening got off to a rocky start. Adams’ piano was initially buried in the mix. The drums, played by her husband John Cushon, and keyboards, played by Kansas City native Everett Freeman, Jr., overshadowed everything. The songs were played at a level reserved for noisy clubs or large theaters, not a respectful group in an acoustically sound room.

Adams’ powerful voice, however, would not be derailed by the sonic disarray. After opening with “Feelin’ Good,” the first of several cuts from her latest album, she led her four-piece band into “New York State of Mind.” By the time she got to the reworked bridge that ushered in a lengthy guitar solo, the song bore little resemblance to Billy Joel’s hit. “I Just Had to Hear Your Voice” displayed Adams’ dynamic range. The lyric-heavy melody found her working the verses in a lower register before opening up and soaring on the chorus.

After 40 minutes, Adams announced a short break. It felt premature, but the timing couldn’t have been better. When the group returned 30 minutes later, the sound issues had been resolved. Balance had been restored and instruments were complementing instead of competing. The always-upbeat Adams seemed happier with the situation, too. During “My Heart Won’t Lie” she held onto a note with a phrasing that recalled Nina Simone and drew big applause.

The biggest cheers of the night, however, didn’t go to Adams. After playfully introducing her band, Adams informed the audience that the mother of her bass player, Jeanne Arland Peterson, was sitting in their midst. With the spotlight focused on Peterson, Adams was able to coax her to come onstage.

Peterson looked fragile making her way up the steps, but spring to life behind Adams’ grand piano. After a breathtaking solo, Peterson launched into “All the Things You Are” with her son, Paul Peterson, and Cushon. The impromptu trio sounded like they’d been playing together for years (and, I suppose, two-thirds of them had). When the 88-year-old pianist wanted to hear a solo, she raised her left hand and shot her index finger at the musician in question as if holding a gun.

Once the massive standing ovation died down, Adams joined the trio for a romp through “More Than You Know.” Peterson’s hands slid across the keyboard with gusto and inspired Adams’ best performance of the night.

Clearly excited to be playing again in her adopted hometown, Adams relished talking with the crowd as much as performing. She sang the praises of the 18th and Vine District, and recalled her days playing at the Signboard Lounge in Crown Center.

“My favorite moment every night,” Adams said, “was waiting to see who got beat up in the bathrooms.”

Fights, Adams remembered, sometimes broke out because someone didn’t applaud the right way. Adams also told of a police detective who frequented her gigs. When someone would start talking too loudly, he would start polishing his badge, hinting at what might happen if the chatter didn’t stop.

“I always had the most dedicated fans,” she said, laughing.

The night ended with what Adams said she called the “fourth set” back in her Signboard days. After hinting at her gospel roots in the first set by prefacing “No Way To Love Me“ with I Corinthians 13, Adams took the assembly to church with a powerful one-two of “If You’re Willing” and “Holy is the Lamb.” Both songs were from Adams’ 1997 gospel collection “Come Walk With Me” and fans voiced their pleasure by clapping along and shouting amen.

The poignant “Long and Lonely Hours” is part of a new collection of prayers set to song that Adams hopes will be her next album. The invocation was written after her mother died after spending five months in the hospital, and deals with the feelings of abandonment, awkwardness and, ultimately, acceptance, one feels alone at night in the hospital.

Adams wouldn’t let the night end on a dark note, so she immediately sprang into “Get Here.” Fans burst into applause at the opening chord of her most famous number and several cried out with excitement. Expectations can be high for homecoming shows, but it was clear from the closing ovation that Adams had met them all.

“Tonight,” the woman sitting next to me said, “we got our own jewel, right here at the Gem.”

Setlist: Feelin’ Good; New York State of Mind; I Just Had To Hear Your Voice; I Hope You Dance; Picture You the Way That I Do; Circle of One. Intermission. The Power of Sacrifice; Let’s Stay Here; My Heart Won’t Lie; All The Things You Are (ft. Jeanne Arland Peterson); More Than You Know; If You’re Willing; Holy is the Lamb; Long and Lonely Hours (solo); Get Here.

Keep reading:

Review: Kind of Blue turns 50

Review: Sonny Rollins

Buck O’Neil: Sweet times, sweet sounds at 18th and Vine

15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years

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