Imagine Whitney Houston with warmth or Mariah Carey with charisma. For the uninitiated, that's some idea of what singer Oleta Adams is like.
But she's no slinky young glamor queen. The "thirtysomething" performer is a hard-nosed, late-blooming veteran who was discovered a few years ago in the trenches of the Midwest piano-bar circuit.
Headlining the sold-out Strand in Redondo Beach on Friday, Adams was mesmerizing most of the time, crooning pop-soul in a way that you seldom hear it.
Adams is one of those rare singers who can transform pop-soul into something of substance. Nearly all of the genre's music is bland and homogenized, desperately in need of a transfusion of grit. But if the music gets too soulful, pop-oriented fans may get turned off.
So Adams walks that fine line between satisfying the pop fans while infusing enough tension and fire to woo the R&B crowd. The daughter of a preacher, she doesn't neglect her roots either, pumping in gospel elements here and there.
She's blessed with a deep, rich, full-bodied voice with a hefty range and spine-tingling timbre. Her voice has such power and resonance that she sometimes calls to mind an opera singer dabbling in pop--the way Sarah Vaughan often did.
It's Adams the ballad singer, crooning blissfully romantic tales such as "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" and "The Day I Stopped Loving You," that people come to hear. She sprinkles in up-tempo songs for variety's sake, and does a decent job on them. But it's her glorious ballad singing that sets her apart from the competition.
The material from her two albums, "Circle of One" and "Evolution," was mostly first-rate. Many are her own compositions, but she also slipped in quality tunes by other artists, such as Brenda Russell's "Get Here" and Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind."
Her small combo and two backup singers were sometimes too intrusive. Adams was most effective sitting at the piano, where she sang with minimal support and fell back on her piano-bar training to create the kind of intimacy those ballads require for maximum impact.
On the whole, she was good about sidestepping schmaltz--the pitfall of most pop-soul singers. When you could feel some songs about to be submerged in sweetness, her voice would take on a harder edge that would halt the sugary tailspin.
Adams finishes her Southern California tour with shows tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Wednesday at the Roxy.