Cesaria Evora

At the Orpheum on Sunday, March 26

Old stage habits die hard with Cesaria Evora. The 65 year-old singer from Cape Verde, who honed her craft in the harbourside bars of Sí£o Vicente, is legendary for taking a midset break to sit down for a smoke and a shot of whiskey. In recent years Evora has reportedly cut out the quaffing and greatly reduced the puffing. But she took time out from her concert at the Orpheum on Sunday night to light up, as usual, and it drew huge applause.

The well-heeled sold-out audience was reassured to see the world-music diva back in town. Ill health caused Evora to cancel an appearance at last summer's Vancouver International Jazz Festival, but she looked and sounded well, and sported a new wavy perm. Naturally she was unshod-the barefoot diva has a trademark to maintain. There was a shaggy black rug on the ground for her to shuffle on gently, as she sang the bittersweet mornas and brisk coladeiras of her homeland.

The clear liquid Evora imbibed was probably not alcoholic, but it was otherwise the same old Cesaria. That's what people came to hear, and that's what they got for a single 90-minute set. But I couldn't help feeling that the excellent nine-piece accompanying band, which introduced the evening and played a second instrumental as Evora puffed away, was kept on too short a leash by Fernando Andrade, her musical director and pianist.

When saxophonist Antonio Domingos Gomes Fernandes stepped out front for his solos, it whipped up the energy level in the room. But guest musician Régis Ghizavo, who's arguably the greatest African accordionist, was never allowed the spotlight, being restricted to brief melodic swirls during "Sí£o Tomé da Equador" and "Travessa da Peixera", both from Evora's latest release, Rogamar.

The silver-voiced granny sang other new songs, as well as favourites from her large catalogue of work by her homeland's composers. As she started up big hits like the Cuban bolero "Bésame Mucho", the opening phrases drew volleys of response from the audience, and a handful of Cape Verdeans called out enthusiastically between songs. But, otherwise, there was little sense of occasion. This was dance music, yet no dancing broke out in the aisles, not even when Evora performed the jaunty coladeira "Africa Nossa" [Our Africa] as an encore. It's a catchy number, but it was the second time they'd played it. No one seemed to mind, but it felt as if Evora and her bandleader were on automatic pilot.