According to an anecdote told to a sold-out Troubadour on Tuesday night, Sam Smith was working in a bar a year ago when he wrote the song “Latch” with a then-relatively-unknown band called Disclosure. It’s safe to say things have changed for all parties involved in that song.
Disclosure has managed both chart success and critical acclaim, including plenty here at the LA Music Blog. Meanwhile, Sam Smith spent the day between his two Troubadour shows this week playing a bunch of new songs to the guys at the Capitol Records building for the major label that has now signed him and is getting ready to launch him into the stratosphere of fame.
The transition has been rapid, and Smith’s banter between songs was that of a young man who can’t quite believe how quickly everything is happening. That aspect made him a truly endearing performer, although it was obvious from the screams as he came to the stage that the crowd was very much on his side to begin with. In truth, that youthful naivety showed in some of the newer songs. As a lyricist, Smith remains a little obvious, and some songs, such as “Leave Your Lover,” while perfectly pleasant and refreshingly economical, could have come from any competent major label signing.
Others, such as the Naughty Boy collaboration “La La La,” were given more zip by a tight backing band that only served to accentuate the idea that this was as much an old-school major label showcase as it was a live show. Smith was on stage for just 40 minutes, and when he returned for an encore, a cover of the Anita Baker hit “Sweet Love,” he confessed that there was no planned encore and that the cover version was literally the only other song the band knew how to play together. This is a career that is very much in its infancy.
So what is it about Smith that has women clamoring to see him and record labels chasing his signature with such fervor? Well, that would be his voice. I can confidently say that Sam Smith’s voice pretty much blows that of any major pop star you could name out of the water. His range, power, and control are simply astonishing, and the fact that he can do it all so effortlessly while flashing a smile makes him a natural-born star. When that voice is belting out songs like “I’ve Told You Now” with absolute confidence, it’s impressive enough, but when he really stretches his vocals, you can see just how easily he separates himself from the pack.
Show opener “Nirvana” was particularly extraordinary. It’s the kind of song you feel like only he could pull off, with a slow build to a glorious gospel-style chorus that induced a cold sweat of excitement at the witnessing of something very special. He saved his down-tempo acoustic version of “Latch” for later in the show, but it remains a lovely interpretation of the song, and on stage it was another subtle display of the power of his voice.
Now that he has signed to a major with all of the complications that can bring, I worry that Smith may have some of his more experimental edges worn away. The fact that the excellent “Safe With Me” is not included in his live repertoire is a slightly worrying sign, but I hope I’m wrong. There is no doubt that the guy is truly gifted, a potential one-in-a-million vocal talent, and I hope he gets the support and creative freedom his gift deserves. One thing that’s for sure is that there isn’t a chance in hell he’ll be playing venues this small next year.
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