Sam Smith, Gavin James
August 14, 2015
Sam Smith made me love him and then broke my damn heart at Toyota Center Friday night. It was hurtful, but I'll forgive him, because that broken heart happened in the nicest of ways, I guess.
I'm going to be honest here. I didn't walk into Sam Smith's show over the weekend expecting to be blown away — not by anything but his vocals, anyway. He's obviously an amazing vocalist; his four Grammys, including one for Best New Artist and two more for Record and Song of the Year (for "Stay With Me"), certainly prove that. And so does his massive debut album, In the Lonely Hour, which has moved almost 2 million copies in the U.S. alone. But even with the kudos Sam's been given, I can't say I loved him prior to Friday night. But I can now.
After Smith ran through his gambit of sad songs on his set list Friday night, including the ones where he's absolutely crushed by unrequited love, I found myself loving him very much indeed. To have any emotion drawn out of a show at Toyota is impressive. It's hard for shows to feel personal or connected to the audience in a venue that large, and for me, most pop music doesn't have the same emotional pull as, say, a good, sad country song. But perhaps this was a lesson in keeping an open mind, because good lawd, can that boy and his music draw out the feels.
I'm sure it helped that the primer for the evening was a fellow named Gavin James, who — if you haven't heard of him — you should be listening to right now. All of you. His vocals were impeccable; the notes he could climb to were never forced, never put on, and the genuine soul behind his guitar and his vocals commanded the attention of the audience scattered throughout Toyota Center as they waited for Sam Smith.
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Standing onstage with just a guitar and your voice would seem like a terrifying feat at the smallest of venues, but standing onstage at Toyota with only a guitar and your vocals and actually pulling it off? That feels damn near impossible. But James did it, and by pulling off a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," no less. He was great.
And so was Sam Smith, even if his ballads about heartbreak and anecdotes about the boy who broke his heart broke my heart in turn.
Smith — and I say this with every bit of snark packed away deep inside my soul — is amazing. From his stage presence to his ability to hit every single note while not compromising one bit of emotion, he is simply amazing.
I'm not sure if there are statistics out there on the number of artists who immediately jump from debut album to Toyota Center stage, but I'm going to bet large amounts of money that there aren't many. Yet that's precisely what Sam did. His stop at Toyota was the first time the English crooner has played Houston — a show slated for House of Blues last fall was canceled after he had a bout with tonsillitis and a subsequent surgery — and the crooner has only released that one album to date.
You'd have never known his relative inexperience, though. Despite Smith's quick ascent, the 23-year-old balladeer proved his worth as an artist over and over Friday night.
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Opening with "Life Support" and quickly launching into "Together" and "Leave Your Lover," the singer obviously has something a natural vocal ability that doesn't come along every day. He's simply a powerhouse of sound. No note is out of place, and no lyric feels forced or cheesy — which, to be fair, I expected, given the album's thematics.
But while Smith is a brilliant vocalist, what makes him special, and gives him the right to the Toyota Center throne, is who he is as an artist onstage. There's something about Smith's candor — the way he talks about how the songs are about being brokenhearted over a boy who didn't love him back. That makes him, those feelings and that voice so accessible, even in a massive venue. You can't help feeling sad along with him, and equally heartbroken over his experiences. Even from miles away.
Even the covers that Smith threw onto the set list — Amy Winehouse here, Elvis Presley there — feel as though they belong solely to Smith as he belts them out. Winehouse songs feel sadder, and Presley songs feel new again. That is not a simple task to pull off. And yet Smith pulls it off anyway, with the ease of an old pro. But that's what is brilliant about Sam Smith. When he does something up on that stage, it works. All of it. His abilities never wavered during the 16 or so songs on his set. He set us up and broke our hearts, time and time again. And we were all the better for it.
At a turning point during the show, Smith turned to the audience — a half-smile pasted across his face — and said, "It's sometimes hard to find the emotion I had when I wrote these songs...They're not mine anymore. They're yours now."
And it's that one simple phrase that best summarizes Friday's show. When Sam Smith performs, he hands his songs, his feelings and his words — the most heartbroken words on the planet — to the audience, who gladly take ownership of emotions they didn't know they had. Myself included.
So yes, Sam Smith. After your brilliant performance in Houston, you can break my heart any day. Just next time, please bring tissues. The girl in front of me didn't have enough for both of us.
Personal Bias: I can't with the current state of pop music. I thought that included Sam Smith, but I was wrong. He's now officially my unrequited pop crush.
The Crowd: Man, does Smith pull in a diverse crowd. Couples, singles, folks from anywhere and everywhere. Everyone loves Mr. Smith, apparently.
Overheard In the Crowd: "Oh my God. Remember how in middle school they told us no PDA in the hallway? Someone didn't learn their lesson." The people in front of us were making out nonstop. Non.Freaking.Stop.
Random Notebook Dump: Yeah, I never expected to fall in love and have my little heart crushed on Friday night, so thanks for that. Someone needs to give me fair warning next time so I can plan the rest of my depressing Netflix weekend appropriately.