Jorja Smith’s show at the Howard Theatre on Sunday night felt like a coronation, and rightly so; the British singer-songwriter has the vocal ability, lyrical deftness, and magnetic personality to become a household name – and soon. This was the final show in her North American tour, and potentially the one of the last time American audiences will see her play an intimate club setting. With her debut album Lost & Found due out on June 8, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Smith selling out arenas this time next year.
If Smith’s brand of R&B is intimate and deeply personal, the live versions of her songs have universal appeal. The renditions drew immediate connections with the audience of approximately 800, who intermittently sang along and cried out their adoration for the vocalist. Backed by a live band, each track packed additional emotional heft, aural richness and warmth than that featured on her records – where the production can sometimes feel a little icy and detached. Smith’s vocal acrobatics are made even more impressive by how effortless they seem; she can float into an aria as easily as you or I might greet a friend. She dove into some of her older material for the set, performing melancholy ballads such as “Let Me Down” and “Teenage Fantasy“, as well as performing reinterpretations of TLC’s “No Scrubs” and Frank Ocean’s “Lost”, all of which were flawlessly and playfully executed.
It’s apparent that Jorja Smith is on the verge of greatness, if arguably already there. While many artists have wilted under the pressure of the “Drake Effect“, Smith’s feature on last year’s More Life was more of a springboard than a lightning rod; her already promising career benefited from the spotlight but didn’t really need it. All things considered, Smith isn’t even 21-years-old yet, and exudes the maturity and confidence of a seasoned veteran. Clearly, fans have caught onto this: this show was originally booked by the Songbyrd team for a performance at Union Stage, a new 450-capacity venue on the Wharf. The speed with which tickets sold out meant that it was clear that a bigger space was necessary, and after quick discussions with the Howard Theatre, all the parties involved put pride aside to provide Smith with the absolute best platform for putting on an unforgettable show. It was a nice reminder that we’re fortunate to live in a city where the music scene remains collaborative and fan-focused.
Special praise must also be reserved for opener Ama Lou, a fellow English wunderkind with a voice that’s equal parts smoke and silk. Taking the stage alongside two male backup vocalists and her DJ, she treated the audience to a thirty minute set of hip-hop and grime tinged songs that were the perfect appetizer for the main event. I’m not usually too enamored with stacking bills with like-for-like artists, but this worked perfectly and amplified the feeling that we were in for a night of R&B excellence.
Closing the evening’s proceedings with the Preditah remix of “On My Mind”, the uptempo banger got bodies moving and dancing ecstatically. At the end of it all, Smith stood under the bright lights of the Howard Theatre stage soaking in the audience’s adoration and genuinely beaming back at us, her moment finally here.
Feature photo by Ahad Subzwari