Sampha / Kelsey Lu The Drake Hotel, Toronto ON, October 20

Sampha / Kelsey Lu The Drake Hotel, Toronto ON, October 20
Photo: Kevin Jones
9
"It's been a while. I've had a lot to process these past couple of years, as we all do, and it's hard to articulate sometimes," Sampha wrote in a short note to listeners earlier this year. Despite plenty of high profile collaborations with Kanye West, Solange, Drake, Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and more these past few years, the road to releasing his own proper studio debut has been a winding one.
 
His popularity hasn't taken a hit in the least. Tickets to his Thursday night (October 20) performance at Toronto's Drake Hotel, which holds a capacity of about 200 people, sold out the day they went on sale. Some hopefuls apparently offered the door staff a cool $100 bribe to get in.
 
If the intimate evening was any indication of what's to come from his recently announced debut LP, Process, the release will undoubtedly be the greatest look at Sampha's talents yet as both a vocalist and producer.
 
The set primarily drew from the forthcoming record, with Sampha taking the stage to the whirring electronic opening of "Plastic 100°C" alongside a cellist, drummer, percussionist and keyboard player. As far as unheard material went, the crowd was also treated to first two singles "Timmy's Prayer" and "Blood On Me," in addition to the heavily textured "Incomplete Kisses," the vocoder-heavy "Under" and the hip-hop-influenced "Reverse Faults."
 
Not unlike his soul-baring recordings, Sampha's vocal delivery from start to finish was strong and emotive. His falsetto, seemingly more delicate than most, rarely came close to its breaking point no matter how high he pushed it. The looping devotional "Can't Get Close" yielded some of the highest notes of the evening, the crowd fixated on his every word. The tender "Too Much" played out similarly, with the band sitting back to let Sampha and his keyboard do the emotional heavy lifting.
 
As a unit, the band shone most during their more complex live arrangements. "Under" proved to be particularly powerful, with occasional synth stabs, reverb-laden vocals from cellist Kelsey Lu and gentle piano providing a perfect base for Sampha's vocoder. Booming electronic drums kicked in soon afterwards, the vocalist swaying in place and gesturing not unlike a rapper while delivering the song's convicting lyrics, "a nemesis and enemy, you're the crack inside my screen."
 
"Blood On Me" placed an emphasis on auxiliary percussion, with band members playing shakers and granite blocks throughout its crescendos and urgent, stomping piano parts. Sampha got the crowd clapping in time to build towards a finishing breakdown of acoustic and electric drums.
 
The crowd was able to coax them back out for not one, but two encores. The first featured "Without," its tight grooves augmented by Lu's pizzicato cello and delicate piano in closing, while the second saw Sampha step to his keyboard alone to deliver the ever-powerful "Indecision," the crowd singing along to its hopeful, repetitive chorus of "let it all work out."
 
Before getting to work in Sampha's backing band, cellist Kelsey Lu opened the evening, drawing the early crowd in with solo cello loops and powerful vocals. Beginning with a nod to the prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, the classically trained Lu displayed impressive technique not only in her playing, but her singing, too.
 
After deftly plucking out the harmonies to form the loop for "Time," Lu's voice slid throughout her range with precision, never once giving any indication she would break in reaching its highest heights. A wonderful reimagining of the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" closed the set, as Lu told the crowd it was a song she loved to sing as a child.