Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sam Smith at the United Palace Theater

Sam Smith's parents were impressed when they heard their eight-year-old singing along to Whitney Houston’s "My Love Is Your Love" one morning on the drive to school in the rural county of Cambridgeshire, England. They placed their son in formal vocal training with a local jazz singer. Much of the boy's childhood and adolescence thereafter was spent in choir and theater rehearsals and performances. Six managers promised the teen-ager a stardom that did not happen. Smith moved to London at the age of 18, tended bar in Essex, and began writing songs. Smith sang with Disclosure and Naughty Boy, and released an EP in 2013. He scored big with his debut album, In the Lonely Hour, released in May 2014, featuring songs which he recently confessed originated in unrequited love: "a guy that I fell in love with last year, and he didn’t love me back." The album's third single "Stay with Me" was an international success.

The United Palace Theater opened in 1930 as a movie palace and became Reverend Ike's church in 1969. Its ornate interior design fit well with Sam Smith's class act tonight. The 22-year-old singer appeared on stage in a black suit and a white buttoned-down shirt and sang -- really sang. The approving audience seldom sat in the theater's red velvet-covered seats. Smith opened with the sultry, haunting, piano-driven "Nirvana" from his EP. He followed this with a song he originally sang for Disclosure, "Together." After that came Smith's specialty -- a lengthy series of emotionally-charged heartbreak songs, beginning with the trifecta of "Leave Your Lover", "I'm Not the Only One" and "I've Told You Now." Smith's luscious, soulful voice sounded best on these songs, as he flowed from alto to falsetto with ease. Sitting on a stool, Smith admitted his love of divas before covering Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know," transforming the song from dance tune to an emotive, melancholic pop song. This style was limiting, however, because for all his talent as a singer, the set was largely comprised of sappy songs that sounded like they were born in a pre-rock era. For encores, Smith began with a slow, acoustic version of "Latch," which he originally sang for Disclosure, then segued into "Make It To Me," which he described as a "massive mating call," and "Stay With Me," on which the audience sang back to him. Accompanied by backup singers and a violin quartet, Smith cornered the market on contemporary schmaltz.

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