(Rolling Stone) -- When Adele finished a soaring rendition of "Hometown Glory" to open her set at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club last night -- the kickoff gig for her North American tour -- she did a mini-curtsy and took a long swig from a teacup.
"I'm really, really, really nervous," she told the mostly female sell-out crowd. "The last time I was here, the guy who inspired '21' was with me."
The assembled roared in solidarity.
It was the beginning of a non-stop monologue that continued between the set's 16 songs, drawn mostly from "21," the deeply personal break-up album that has sold 1.5 million copies this year.
It seemed that if she stopped talking, even for a moment, the emotions that clearly simmered just below the surface might explode. Her fans could easily have filled a venue much larger than the 1,200-capacity club -- as, clearly, could her voice. But Adele's nerves might not be ready for anything less intimate.
Wearing a high-belted black dress and standing mostly still on a set seemingly designed to look like a retro London flat, with Persian rugs and two dozen vintage lampshades dangling at various heights, Adele belted out her heartache in song after earnest song.
The material might have turned grating or repetitive in the hands of a lesser talent, but the 23-year-old Brit's reservoir is so deep and the passion so palpable that it's hard to take your eyes off her.
"I don't know why I get so hot -- it's not like I'm dancing like Beyoncé," she quipped after the particularly melancholic "Don't You Remember" before releasing a signature laugh-honk and moving on to gabbing about the royal wedding.
"I liked the kissing bit best," she said. "They just seemed like any boyfriend and girlfriend."
"Turning Tables," one of the angrier tracks on 21, was given a smart, spare arrangement that highlighted the power of Adele's voice, which carried effortlessly into the high rafters, pulling goosebumps from hundreds of arms -- and more than a few tears.
One of the night's biggest ovations came when the singer introduced her cover of "If It Hadn't Been for Love," by bluegrass band the Steeldrivers.
"It's about shooting your wife," she said. "I'm not condoning it, but I want to shoot a few f***ing men in my life."
When she played the re-imagined cover of the Cure's "Lovesong" from 21, she mentioned that the arrangement was originally written for Barbra Streisand, who passed on it.
She went on to list her "favorites" as Streisand, Bette Midler, Etta James, and June Carter -- a list that accurately reflects Adele's own potent mix of soul and schmaltz.
As the set wound down, it was clear the weight was lifting off her shoulders.
"I can't believe I've managed to wear my high heels throughout the whole show!" she blurted before launching into "Someone Like You," perhaps the most devastating song on 21, in which she confronts her former lover's marriage.
"Nevermind, I'll find someone like you/I wish nothing but the best for you too," she sang with shaking hands. "Don't forget me, I beg."
Returning for a triumphant encore -- "The shoes are off!" she declared -- Adele didn't so much deliver her propulsive, bitter signature hit "Rolling in the Deep" as introduce it. This time, her booming voice was just the loudest in a sing-along in which her thousand-plus tribe shared the cathartic joy of acceptance and resilience.
Adele, in all her pop-culture referencing, quippy glory, delivers that as well as anyone.
Copyright © 2011 Rolling Stone.