There are two great types of performers, the Lady Gagas who turn the stage into their home and treat the audience as though they are an extended family, and the Beyonces who command the stage through presence and dictate the terms of our servitude. Sam Smith is neither. Smith is the 22 year English singer who broke big last year with his lead vocal on Disclosure’s “Latch” and whose debut album, the sublime ballad laden heartbreak songs of In The Lonely Hour, and first single “Stay With Me”, has made him this year’s Adele. I’ve been eager to see him live for a while now after missing his Mercury Lounge debut, and at United Palace last night, I got to see him.
Sam was good. His singing was flawless, a tender voice filled with emotion and feeling, his range isn’t terrific but his falsetto is glorious and he can sustain it and he sings as though he is telling a story and he writes stories worth telling. His work with both Disclosure and Naughty Boy is exemplary and he has just begun his career. I could listen to Sam sing all night, or at least for 75 minutes, and I did, and I enjoyed it, but he hasn’t figured out to present himself on stage yet.
Performing his standard set with three back up singers a coupla keyboards, a coupla guitarist and the only wrinkle a violin section, Sam was good natured but arch. He can’t dance, which is one thing, but he can’t talk, and that is something else. Claiming he doesn’t have a set speech in concert, a blatant lie, he gave any number of shoutouts to New York, and at least two completely canned stories to introduce songs (of course he did, and even if he didn’t it isn’t an excuse for an inability to perform a personal and unique show for an audience), there was no stumble but it sounded banal. On “I’ll Tell You Now” he explained the increasingly tedious story of how the homosexual Sam fell for a straight guy and never told the guy but pined away like patience on a monument; it was the first song Sam wrote about the situation after a drunken night out and Sam very nearly telling him how Sam felt. The song imagines if Smith had told him and on record it a slow beauty with a powerful two line chorus. On stage, the set up is ponderous and irrelevant but the song itself is performed faster and stronger, a wonderful build to the declaration: “But what the hell? Why do you think I come ’round here on my free will?”
Except for a superb, show stopping “Berlin”, the RY X cover (aka Australian singer songwriter Ry Cuming), and a better than the Youtube version I’ve heard “How Will I Know?”, the songs are the same though a little louder than the recorded versions and Sam’s delivery is professionally adept at searching through to his and our heart. meanwhile the poppier stuff, Naughty Boy’s “La La La” is spunkier than I expected and “Money On The Mind” ended the set proper where it should have. So while we could have done with more of the crushed out coda to “Berlin”, what we got was fine.
But Sam seemed to have no command of the stage as he wandered back and forth, no idea how to speak to the audience, he couldn’t tell a story and he couldn’t seem to make it a personal experience. The man is at the start of his career, “Latch” was released nearly exactly two years ago, and while his life trajectory has been resolutely towards show business, he doesn’t have a feel for the stage. We don’t know quite where to place him: a male Adele? A John Newman contemporary? A Café Carlyle American songbook guy for the 2010s? It is possible In The Lonely Hour, a blue noted masterpiece of extended melancholia, is giving us the wrong idea. Or maybe Sam isn’t 100% clear on who he is yet.
My friend Roger Arnold wondered “Is he Boy George in a nice suit?. I see Roger’s point but Sam isn’t positioning himself as a pop group star but as the front man and songwriter of a classicist style of song. No doubt, Sinatra could have done a great job on “Stay With Me”. “Leave Your Lover”, Like I Can”, these songs are finely sculpted pop ballads; better than Adeles songs though coming from a similar place.
It is nearly always a blast seeing a musician when they first hit it big but it wasn’t last night. Smith didn’t seem ready for the spotlight. Everything is happening too fast and Smith hasn’t figured how to share his success with an audience. He will.
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