Published Feb 05, 2015With a sold-out Rogers Arena buzzing in anticipation, and the first notes of "Life Support" igniting the sound system, a dark curtain dropped to reveal two outlined faces on a gauzy foreground. Soon thereafter, the shadow of a solitary figure appeared, the gauze wisped away, and there was Sam Smith, placed high up on a pedestal in front of a drum kit, with bass, electric guitar, cello, keys and a trio of backup singers cascading down escalated risers around him. It was a theatrical moment, over by the time his pedestal hit the stage, but it was one of but a few such moments in the entire show, and, even then, somewhat understated for a room of this magnitude.
Yet, it's doubtful anyone in attendance would have complained about the lack of pyrotechnics. Smith provided all the fireworks himself, a refreshingly barebones approach in the contemporary pop landscape. He's not out there copyrighting "this sick beat" or projecting image consciousness into fragile egos yearning for escape. He just wants to sing, and sing he can, with a quality somewhere between Elton John, Lionel Richie and Dean Martin.
Before "Leave Your Lover," Smith started in on what would be a series of heartfelt musings between songs. He said that he was happy to spend the last day of his whirlwind North American tour in Vancouver, that he loved this place, and expressed gratitude to his fans for getting his sensational 2014 debut album In the Lonely Hour up to #2 in this country. Obviously, this city loved him back, following his command to help sing "I'm Not the Only One" with vigour; most of whom knew every single word, not just the hook.
A small rave broke out in the intro for "Nirvana" with strobing bars of white light pulsing on the risers and stark spotlights splayed skyward, Smith singing with his back to the crowd, but as he turned, the lights soon moved back to their usual warmly simmering mood. It was an anomalous moment in an otherwise minimal presentation that placed the focus on the purity of his vision, the full band of talent behind him and his distinctive falsetto (what he prefers to call a chest and head voice). And he was generous with the spotlight, too, his gospel backup singers clapping their way to the front of the stage to stand in line with Smith for "Like I Can" and "Restart"; there was no "twenty feet from stardom" on this stage as they joyously shuffled and richly harmonized right next to him, and he gave props to drummer Jamiel Blake and guitarist Ben Thomas after solos.
Granted, at the end of such a massive tour, and directly following a Seattle date that was postponed due to vocal fatigue, his voice appeared to be a little tattered when he pushed his range or attempted unfettered gusto, but he was still sweet and soulful in his zone; he has a voice that could butter toast. Though he had to power through despite himself at various times, he did it with a smile. He was a fantastic performer, engaging everyone he could in the hugely impersonal space, and making it look easy.
One of the most stunning moments came when he played "Good Thing," which he referred to as the most personal song on his lone album, a song about deleting the number of someone he loved who didn't love him back. Accompanied only by the tasteful piano of Reuben James, the song was stripped down to how he would have played it when he opened for the Long Straws at the 350-capacity Tractor Tavern in Seattle just two years previously. The crowd waved cellphone torches like lighters, projecting a vibe like k.d. lang singing at the Olympics, then they belted out the similarly arranged "Lay Me Down." It was the eye of the storm, yet it remained one of the boldest displays of his power as a singer-songwriter.
The 75-minute set was capped off with a brooding cover of jazz standard "My Funny Valentine" and interpretations of his contributions to "La La La" by Naughty Boy, transposed from clubby breaks to slick R&B with a bass drop, and "Latch" by Disclosure, brought down to a slower lounge realm. He also performed "Make It to Me," in part with him sitting on the riser with his backup singers, and his accidentally Tom Petty-esque single "Stay With Me." Then he left us, expressing love for the city yet again, on his way to go play at the Grammys, where he recently picked up six nominations.
Smith noted that "Money on My Mind" was the one song on his album that was not about love. Written in reaction to meeting a particularly shitty pop star who made music for what he called the wrong reasons, this song was about how he does it for the love, just to be on that stage with his audience. For some, it's just banter, but from his song-writing to his stage presence, it's hard not to take Sam Smith at his word. He's the real deal.