In 2012, he was featured on Disclosure’s hit, “Latch,” as the perfect vocal compliment to the catchy electronic track, and it was only up from there. A BRIT Critics’ Choice Award and a BBC’s Sound of 2014 win both preceded the release of his debut album this May. In The Lonely Hour is a collection of songs about unrequited love in which this young man sings about the pain of loving without being loved in return with an astounding maturity. Not to mention, his voice is incredible. And Sam Smith did not disappoint last week at the Fox Theater.
As I made my way to the show, the AC transit buses were moving at a snail’s pace and BART seemed to be going in slow motion, but finally I arrived in downtown Oakland and saw his name shining high up on the classic Fox Theater marquee. When I walked inside, the stage was already set up for the opening act, their name spelled out in lights on the back curtain: BROODS. As a new discovery of mine, I was excited to see which songs they would offer up to the crowd. The indie-pop duo played songs from both their January-released EP and their just-released debut album. Songs like “Bridges,” “Never Gonna Change,” “Four Walls" excited the audience with breathy vocals and a unique electronic bite. Hailing from New Zealand, this brother-sister collaboration, with 19-year-old Georgia’s powerful femme vocals and 21-year-old Caleb’s seemingly unlimited mastery of instruments, is definitely on the list of bands to watch out for.
The house lights went down, and when a single note broke the hush in the theater, the audience went crazy. It was instantly clear to us what song was about to play. The opening bar repeated over and over again, the curtain stayed down, and the audience hung on to each deep thrum of bass and the delicious twang of notes being stretched. The anticipation was killing us all. Finally, the curtains lifted and Sam, still masked by the smoke and bright lights, started to sing “Nirvana.” He was dressed in a dapper black suit, his hair slicked back in his signature coif, and as he clasped the microphone, it was clear that he was born for the stage.
Sam continued to serenade the audience with his lover’s appeal “Leave Your Lover” and the heart-wrenching “I’m Not The Only One,” before pausing to give a little insight to audience. “Some people think my entire record is about one person, but actually only five songs are about that person,” he told us. Which five of his songs, we may never know, but he sure has channeled his heartbreak into a compelling collection. His lyrics are honest and his compositions highlight his skillful vocals, so it was a shock to us all when he said that he felt like he “needed to make pop-pop music, to go electronic.” He doesn’t need any soundboard effects to make his music great, and thankfully, his ideas about going “pop” faded when he “got into the studio and just started to sing.” He’s created songs that are real, songs like “I’ve Told You Now” that speak out to the heartbroken and speak for those of us that have fallen in love alone. When asked about his influences, he admits he has “an issue ... can’t really listen to guy singers too much. I just love female singers, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé … so me and Reuben [sic] [his keyboardist] decided to do something different one day and do a cover of one of my favorite songs in the entire world, ‘How Will I Know,’ by Whitney Houston.” His voice was tender and soft, cradling the lyrics, and when he ascended into his head voice, Sam Smith left no room for doubt as to why he was topping the charts.
Despite his international fame, the singer is incredibly modest and appreciative of his fans, "I can’t explain how real it is to come some place I’ve never been before, and get this response. It’s amazing. And this is the first song I put on YouTube, the song that got me a record deal, and I want to dedicate this to anyone that was at that concert seven months ago in San Francisco. Thank you for being there and being here with me still.” He then broke out into a beautiful rendition of “Lay Me Down.” His vocal runs were intoxicating, and when the pace picked up, the backup singers joined in, one at a time, to create an intriguing four-part harmony as the lights skimmed over the crowd, before fading out to let Sam bask in the final note.
Sam came back out for a three-song encore, beginning with the hit that started his career, “Latch.” He paused at the microphone before his second song, “I wrote a really depressing record, but at the end of it all, I wanted to leave it on a happy note because I am a happy person and I do want to fall in love one day. So I wrote this song to my future lover.” “Make It To Me” was airy and light, from the minor chord progressions to his gentle voice, and a beautifully optimistic track. The show concluded with “Stay With Me” — the audience clapping and dancing as confetti and balloons tumbled from the ceiling.
Sam Smith’s performance at the Fox Theater was one for the books. The experience of being serenaded by this incredibly talented young man is one I won't be forgetting anytime soon.
If you missed this show, don’t worry, he’ll be back at the Civic Center on January 31st, 2015.
Photos by Jen Horton / Staff