About to appear as the star attraction of the parade and party for Mardi Gras 2020 in a month, Sam Smith is one of the biggest names in pop, on both sides of the Atlantic as well as Sydney, a personal favourite town.
Now identifying as non-binary, Smith was identifying as male at the time of their first shows here in 2015, hence the pronouns used in this original review. In the first of two tours that year as they went from new star to phenomenon, Smith showed why they mattered to so many, but also why soon some of the rest of us would be querying if they were actually bringing something special or merely comforting.
Not that anyone was listening to us, of course. Sydney’s second show of 2015 was at the much bigger, though now defunct, Entertainment Centre. Sam Smith was in a hurry.
Hordern Pavilion, April 27
Sam Smith probably looks like an unlikely teen pop star to you.
The screaming and almost hysterical excitement may seem over the top for a tall, sweetly smiling but otherwise unprepossessing man (with a beautiful if not particularly individual voice) singing pop/soul rooted in the decade from the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s. He doesn’t dance, throw shade on enemies or spend a lot of time ostentatiously admiring his own genius.
Smith’s standing among a generation which sees his formative musical decade as a kind of pre-history may jar when you realise that, save for one song (Money On My Mind), his music has barely any acknowledgment of the hip hop and R&B sounds which have dominated the past two decades. And we’ve only got one album’s worth of material to judge anyway.
But those songs are - as he explains in one of several interludes where coyly he positions himself as not like the other pop stars, and never quite claims he is just like us – about love at one remove.
They are floridly coloured songs, intermittently punctuated by falsetto, all about the notion, the romance, the tragedy of love. But always of love unrequited or unreachable or simply unimpeded by practicalities.
In essence they are songs for high emotion, or the imagining of high emotion. To be sung by him relatively simply if intensely and presented in the main relatively simply (a five piece band of guitar, bass, drums, keys and cello; a three-voice backing troupe; no stage theatrics), but thrown back by the audience at full throttle as we revel in the drama, the nothing-matters-more-than-this-right-now veneer.
No wonder they love him. No wonder too that despite his songs arguably being at a “sitting” tempo, the shows are being presented in standing venues, the kind of places where passivity is less of an issue to worry about and momentum can be as important as connection.
It’s enough to obscure the fact Smith has not much more than two or at a pinch three outstanding songs, one of which – naturally - closes the night.
As the anthem of choice for the past year or so, Stay With Me is vulnerable (in its need) and strong (in its openness), tender (in its verses) and rousing (in its choruses), capable of being both church and bedroom without committing so much to one or the other so we can project our own hearts on to it.
Less captivating by far are stock numbers such as I’m Not The Only One and Good Thing, where you don’t doubt the feeling but can’t find the uniqueness, no matter how well dressed the band makes them. They don’t so much plod along as comfort when you might want spark, think when you might want to do, cuddle when you might want rogering.
You might say what’s missing is the full R-rating kit, something more than the M-rated one for beginners.
Mardi Gras Party ’20 is at the Hordern Pavilion, February 29.