Sam who? Sam Smith? Doesn’t sound like the name of a rock star, does it?
In two weeks’ time he’ll probably be a household name, because you’ll hear it so many times during the Grammy Awards and read it in the headlines the next day. In the meantime, Smith is just another rising young pop star from England, popular enough to earn six Grammy nominations (tied for the most with Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams), to boast the third best-selling album of 2014 (behind Taylor Swift’s “1989” and the “Frozen” soundtrack) and to draw a sell-out crowd on Saturday night at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul for his Twin Cities debut (he also sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden this month).
On recordings, the prodigiously talented Sam Smith (it’s his real name) comes across as the male Adele, but in concert he showed all the stage presence of Susan Boyle. At 22 and with only two years of performing experience, he seemed to have a limited sense of stagecraft.
He certainly isn’t a dancer. Wearing a Justin Timberlake-like suit on a Jason Segel-like body, he lumbered aimlessly around the stylishly stark stage with his slow stumble of sadness, one half-step at a time. His between-song patter sounded scripted, delivered with no panache. And as he sang sad song after sad song, he couldn’t wipe the I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me-so-fast smile off his face.
In many respects, his 80-minute show was reminiscent of the first Twin Cities headline performance in 2003 by blockbuster-selling, instant star Norah Jones, who came across as hopelessly inexperienced. In short, Smith’s charisma-impaired concert was not as richly satisfying as his Grammy-nominated “In the Lonely Hour,” one of the best albums of last year.
Like Jones, Smith has a special voice. His is a warm, reedy tenor that eases effortlessly into an emotion-packed falsetto that’s fuller than most. Musically, he’s soul without the shouting, gospel without being churchy and blues without sounding bluesy.
This blue-eyed soul man avoids the explicit messages and vocal gymnastics heard in much contemporary soul music. He sings from the heart, mostly about unrequited love and loneliness. Male singer/songwriters who are so deeply in touch with their feelings don’t come around very often.
As Smith explained Saturday in concert, “People think I’m this really sad guy who writes poetry every night. It is not a sad album. ... The music I made began to come true.”
Then he talked about how he got really drunk one night, called someone he loved and wrote “I’ve Told You Now” the next morning with a hangover. It may have been inspired by drunk dialing, but there was a palpable ache in Smith’s voice that suggested relief in getting the message off his mind. As he confided to the 5,000 concertgoers, these songs are his therapy.
Backed by five musicians and three singers, Smith was at his best when things were stripped down to just his voice and a grand piano. After saying he was stupidly going through a new breakup, he delivered “Good Thing,” his most personal song, with glazed-eyed, heartfelt reflection, then segued into “Lay Me Down,” a missing-you plea with a marvelous syncopated four-part vocal harmony section that brought a new texture to a repertoire stifled by sonic sameness.
On those two pieces, Smith’s stand-at-the-microphone stage performance truly measured up to the Grammy-deserving art of his recordings.
Opening the concert was another British newcomer worth watching — George Ezra, 21, whose debut album will be released this week (it’s been No. 1 in the U.K. for the past month). Like Jake Bugg, he’s a young singer/songwriter/guitarist with a love for rockabilly and vintage rock, but Ezra adds a Mumford & Sons-like modern artisanal folk twist and a brawny baritone that, on the urgent, raucous “Spectacular Rival,” suggested the legendary bluesman Lead Belly. Maybe we’ll be hearing Ezra’s name (real name George Ezra Barnett) at next year’s Grammys.
Here is what Smith performed on Saturday:
Life Support/ Together/ Leave Your Lover/ I’m Not the Only One/ I’ve Told You Now/ Nirvana/ Like I Can/ Restart/ Good Thing/ Lay Me Down/ My Funny Valentine/ La La La/ Money on My Mind ENCORE Latch/ Make It to Me/ Stay with Me