Words by Andy Smith, photos by Farrah Skeiky
Sam Smith played a rousing sold-out show at U St. Music Hall Thursday night. Considering this was the opening date of his American tour, Smith looked and sounded fresh, eager to perform new material from his forthcoming album, In The Lonely Hour.
Like many others, I first heard the 21-year-old English singer’s soulful voice on Disclosure’s “Latch.” The strength of this single propelled me to learn more about Smith, whose fame is on the upswing in his homeland. He’s already topped the charts with his single “Money On My Mind,” which was covered by the one and only Taylor Swift during a recent UK performance. Smith is also dating English fashion model Daisy Lowe, famously known as Gavin Rossdale’s beautiful bastard child. If I haven’t lauded him enough, Smith has been tapped to play Saturday Night Live this weekend, which will further boost his profile. I mention his fame and celebrity because it appears clear to me that Smith had the talent and pedigree—Smith is the cousin of Lily and Alfie “Theon Greyjoy” Allen—to become a major star.
Smith and his backing band took the small stage at around 8:30 p.m., and for the next hour, he serenaded the packed audience with songs of unrequited love and failed romance. He opened with two tracks off his debut EP, Nirvana: the stirring title track and the soulful “Together,” which featured Smith’s guitarist replicating Nile Rodgers’ slinky guitar line.
Smith told the audience that he is testing several new songs that will appear on his forthcoming LP. (I may be wrong, but some of these songs may have been performed for the very first time.) Of the new material, the piano ballad “Leave Your Lover” was a standout, as Smith cried, “Leave your lover / leave him for me.” Additionally, the uptempo “Like I Can” touches on similar themes, as Smith laments, “There may be lovers who hold out their hand / but they’ll never love you like I can, can, can.” I’m certain this will be a hit abroad, and if Americans are willing to give Smith a chance, I’m sure it can be equally big here.
Perhaps because he has little original material, Smith supplemented his set with a cover of the Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know?” and a new version of “Latch.” I have mixed feelings about the former, because Smith’s voice doesn’t naturally lend itself to the song, which fits Alex Turner’s Yorkshire howl like a glove. Nevertheless, Smith’s version was well-received by his fans, and his band did an adequate job mimicking the Monkeys’ swagger, but methinks there are more appropriate songs he can attempt. It was also pleasant to hear Smith croon “Latch” live, even if his version lost a significant amount of energy divorced from Disclosure’s crowd-juicing beats.
My main criticism of Smith is that he has the tendency to jumble his words together when singing in a falsetto. This sounds fine in isolation, as heard during his chorus on “Latch”, but it becomes irksome when repeated. I wonder if Smith does this on purpose as a “vocal trick,” or if he is genuinely unable to pronounce his lyrics.
Smith concluded his set with “Money on my Mind,” the UK #1 single that has yet to catch on in the States, and “La La La,” a hit by British producer Naughty Boy that Smith provided vocals for (similar to Disclosure and “Latch”). After a brief break, Smith returned to play “Lay Me Down,” the debut single off In The Lonely Hour. He finished the night off with “Stay With Me,” another sappy new song that consisted of Smith asking the audience to clap along while he vocalized, “I guess it’s true I’m not good at a one night stand / But I still I need love because I’m just a man.”
In conclusion, Sam Smith has a tremendous voice, and rightfully belongs to a new generation of blue-eyed soul artists. There’s a good bet that Sam Smith will play a much bigger venue the next time he is in DC, especially if his songs get picked up by adult contemporary radio. This may not be the coolest avenue for his talents, especially after palling around with the hip Disclosure, but if he wants to be a success, he’s got to play for everyone and anyone.