by Michael P Coleman
One of the hallmarks of Oleta Adams’ 45 year career has been the authenticity she brings to any and every lyric. Whether it’s the yearning behind her 1990 breakout hit “Get Here,” her incendiary cover of Billy Joel’s “New York State Of Mind”, or the joy that runs through her 2006 holiday collection Christmas Time With Oleta, Adams’ listeners never have had to wonder whether the artist is feeling what she’s singing.
Fans may be surprised to hear that there was a time when Adams felt pressured to sing what her audience wanted to hear, rather than what was in her heart.
“Mostly I did hotel gigs,” Adams remembers of the days before she became a household name. “They were usually big hotels that had conventions coming in — funeral directors, insurance people, medical people, professional athletes, all sorts of people.”
“How do you keep an audience that doesn’t know what you do? You have to perform the songs they’re familiar with, and that’s the top of the charts on the radio — whether you’re feeling those songs or not.”
Adams, 63 recalls that early stage in her career when she dedicated her performances’ third set to songs that she wanted to do, with less pressure on what was expected of her. That same freedom — to sing the songs she wants to sing — is behind her phenomenal new album, aptly entitled Third Set.
The new album features Adams’ unique takes on standards like Frank Sinatra’s “Only The Lonely,” Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me,” Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.”
With a track list like that, this is undoubtedly a special project for Adams.
“At this point in my life it’s kind of cool that I don’t have to ask anybody’s permission anymore about what I want to sing,” Adams said. “There are certain times in your life when it’s just right to do something, and it doesn’t make sense, and you throw caution to the wind. The decision to do this album was just like that.”
There’s an accessibility to Third Set that’s rare, particularly in today’s music marketplace. One gets the feeling that Adams recorded the entire project during a single late night jam session with her band. While lesser talents have spent entire careers without delivering a project as good as Third Set, Adams and her band recorded the new album in just two and a half days.
“The record was meant to sound like we were doing it live,” Adams affirms, “and pretty much that’s what it was. It was meant to be raw. We didn’t do a lot of overdubbing.”
Fans across the country will get to hear a lot of Third Set, as well as other favorites of Adams’, as the artist is hitting the road this spring. She’ll be performing two shows at Yoshi’s in Oakland on March 26.
At a time when many of Adams’ contemporaries are dropping their mikes for good, one wonders what keeps Adams going — and on the concert trail — after almost half a century in the music business.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Adams whispers. “Music keeps you young! When you have one of those nights with an audience who appreciates you and we can sit there and have a good time together, have those moments of fellowship with each other and really have time to get into the music, that’s what keeps you going. Being in the music is just wonderful! I can’t think of anything else that I would rather do.”
“It’s a painful thing at times, and it’s a wonderful thing,” Adams thoughtfully adds. “You’re instantly judged and instantly applauded. It’s not about the ego: it’s about appreciation. It’s about knowing that the music came from your heart and went directly into someone else’s heart.”
Third Set searingly closes with a pair of gospel songs, “Wilted Roses” and “His Loving Eyes,” both reminiscent of Adams’ stirring, inspirational Come Walk With Me project. It was great to hear, after having been at it for almost five decades, that Adams hasn’t forgotten from Whom all blessings flow.
“I am a child of God, I was raised in the church, sang in choirs, all of that,” the self-described “preacher’s kid” shares. “But none of that means anything unless you have a personal relationship with God. I like to write gospel music that inspires people and lifts them up. The basic message with ‘Wilted Roses’ is that instead of being lukewarm Christians, God wants our best. My father loves, and He loves everyone. The love He has is so powerful that it connects every single one of us. That’s the message that I try to convey.”
“My music has always brought people together, and that’s why I’m here,” the legend continues. “It’s not for me to be some big star. It’s just for me to do my little part in helping people to navigate this lifetime.”
Adams has shows at Yoshi’s in Oakland on March 26 at 7pm and 9pm. For tickets or more information, go to yoshis.com.
Get there if you can!
Adams’ brilliant new Third Set is available on iTunes, and copies will be available at the Oakland shows.
This feature was written by Sacramento-based freelancer Michael P Coleman. Connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com or on Twitter: @ColemanMichaelP
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