It’s not often that the stage, not the artist, is the star of a popular-music concert. It happened with Kanye West on a platform floating over the entire mainfloor audience in 2016. It happened with U2 and their giant claw stage that occupied nearly half a football field in 2009-11.
And it happened with Sam Smith on Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center.
The British pop star performed on a thin triangle-shaped stage that jutted into the middle of the arena. His backdrop was a slender pyramid, which featured colored lights, intriguing patterns and sides that opened like a lotus flower. And, during the encore, the pyramid opened to reveal Smith singing on a spiral staircase.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. But, then that’s been the case with Smith and his fast-moving career. When he made his Twin Cities debut in 2015 at Wilkins Auditorium, it seemed too much, too soon. Not only was he charisma-impaired, he had no stagecraft in his background and he didn’t even seem comfortable in his own skin. Then a few weeks later he won Grammys for song and record of the year (“Stay with Me”) plus best new artist.
On Tuesday, Smith showed about 300 percent improvement. He’s clearly comfortable in his own skin, exuding an exuberance that helped offset the sadness of his songs. In fact, he bordered on giddy, gushing over the fans like talk-show host James Corden fawning over every one of his “brilliant” guests.
At age 26 with two bestselling albums to his credit, Smith is still not an accomplished or commanding concert performer. That’s why the smallness of his triangular stage was perfect for him. He was not overwhelmed by the bigness of the space when his repertoire is largely ballads with a few midtempo tunes.
Smith knew how to bring the drama with his staging. He made his striking entrance seated in a chair, rising from below the triangular stage, lit from behind, a shadowy figure in black and white.
Smith found similar theatricality when he did his Oscar-winning James Bond theme, “Writing’s on the Wall,” as the pyramid behind him opened for the first time while his four-man band’s sound swelled with orchestral sweep.
“How [expletive] dramatic was that?” a triumphant Smith asked at song’s end.
The singer displayed a gorgeous, often reedy tenor with a keening falsetto. However, he came across more as an emotive performer than someone who relives the deeply felt emotions of his songs, as he did in the recording studio.
Still, Smith made it work, thanks to the staging and musical arrangements. Especially effective were his four backup singers, who helped him with call-and-response on “Money on My Mind,” some ’60s harmonies on “Midnight Train” and some churchy sounds on “Him” and, of course, “Pray.” On “Palace,” backup singer Lucy Jules, with her back to the crowd, exchanged high harmonies with Smith, who was standing atop a spiral staircase. That was a highlight.
There were a couple of missteps, including “Restart,” which sounded like a dated Janet Jackson outtake, and a reimagination of “Latch,” Smith’s 2012 dance-pop hit with the British electronic duo Disclosure, that was slowed and stripped down. This show could have used more up-tempo music, especially from a star who specializes in sad, slow songs.
Smith addressed that early in the evening.
“I realized that my music is really, really depressing,” he said. “I had this massive panic everyone is going to leave this room feeling like [crap].”
So he urged everyone to leave their sadness, anxiety and heartbreak at the door for two hours. Thanks to the pyramid and triangle, he clearly figured out a way to avoid the panic and enable everyone to feel happy. How else can you explain 11,000 fans standing for 110 minutes of ballads?
Opening the concert was Beth Ditto, 37, who was quite the opposite of Smith. The powerhouse dance-rock singer from Portland, Ore., was full of life, personality and beats you have to dance to.