Words By Jose Lopez-Sanchez, Photos By Maya Moore
We’ve had to wait a long time to see Sampha in the flesh. It was worth the wait.
Sampha, the mysterious and elusive London-based singer-songwriter and electronic artist, has spent the early part of his career shrouded in secrecy. Emerging occasionally to lend his baleful, honeyed voice to tracks by luminaries such as SBTRKT, Drake, Kanye, and most recently Solange, his online presence was tightly controlled and sparse. Whether this was his decision, or a shrewd PR move by his record label Young Turks – also home to The xx and FKA Twigs – any feature or new track led to a frenzy of excitement and anticipation. The question wasn’t if Sampha would make it in the States, but when would he finally come bless us with his talents?
Walking out to a packed house at U Street Music Hall, Sampha started the evening by opening with his politically charged uptempo new track “Blood On Me” to a rapturous audience reception. Playing some of his most recent singles in quick succession, we were treated to full-band renditions of some songs that we had previously heard as piano-only tracks – the addition of drums, bass, and opener Kelsey Lu’s cello added depth and richness to each of the songs.
As far as venues to cut your teeth at, U Street Music Hall is pretty ideal: the room packs a lot of people without ever losing its sense of intimacy, the sound quality ranges from good to superb, and you get less “fair weather” fans than at other venues for some reason. That being said, it was incredibly frustrating to hear a din of conversation throughout each of the older, quieter piano ballads that helped Sampha make his name. Songs like “Too Much” and “Happens” are delicate, moving pieces of music that would benefit from audience cooperation, or at least some respect for the artist on the stage. It was disappointing to see clusters of people carrying on their conversations with little regard for the man pouring his heart out on stage. It was a sad reminder of some of the old criticisms of DC audiences that I hoped we had moved past – that people never really get into the shows, and that they’re more interested in their own conversations than the artists on stage – remain. This show sold out quickly, and was the hottest ticket in town on a night packed with great live acts. Some people wouldn’t know a good thing if it sang an angelic falsetto fifteen feet from them.
Despite this, Sampha and his band put on an incredible performance, joining the exclusive circle of artists who somehow manage to sound better live than they do on the record. In what was only his second night on tour in the U.S. (having kicked off on Sunday night in Philadelphia), the group was tight, in sync, and polished from the off. It won’t be long before he’s selling out much, much larger venues and steaming up the charts.