BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Sam Smith does not sound like the name of a pop star, but the man who bares the name doesn’t particularly look like one either.
At the UIC Pavilion Friday, Smith was in his element: A sports stadium filled with adoring fans who, most unlikely, crossed a wide age spectrum, from junior high kids entrenched in One Direction all the way up to middle-aged couples on date night. Smith played to them all, but never seemed to take it for granted. His unadorned stage presence — no hand palpitations or dance choreography here — is respectful, polite, and serious down to his black suit and sneakers.
Smith, 22, is an R&B newcomer emerging from the path established by Adele, Duffy, Emeli Sande, and other recent singers from the U.K. who are taking an austere but contemporary approach to American soul music. Turning their backs to vocal hysterics and the bump-and-grind salutations of previous blue-eyed vocal belters, Smith and others are decidedly frills-free. For them, the bad news is best delivered straight, making it accessible to audiences who in recent years have been overloaded with lip-syncing pop singers who lean heavily on crutch of video screens, dance troupes, and comedy skits.
Smith strikes the unusual balance of striking an anti-pop star pose while happening to be a star.
Since his first appearance in Chicago last fall when he headlined the Riviera, Smith picked up six Grammy nominations in a field he shares with with monster hitmakers Pharrell Williams and Beyonce. “In the Lonely Hour” (Capitol), Smith’s debut album, was the third biggest-selling album last year, selling 1.2 million copies.
Not that he considered it good taste to gloat Friday; instead, Smith stuck to the ruminating tone of his songbook, a collection of pop ballads and light disco. He is not the kind of singer who will make you jump from your seat in a moment of transcendent joy, but rather Smith is more geared to make you ease that chair back far in reverse, kick off your shoes and pull someone close. His vocals, which range from a warm tenor to an effortless falsetto, are powerfully cozy. Because he sheds typical pop star conventions and is content to walk, not strut, across his stage, the effect is of a singer who is fully controlled and is aware of the pitfalls of appearing, or sounding, shrill.
He sings the blues without sounding particularly bluesy. (“I think a lot of people think I’m a person who sits alone at night and writes poetry … I’m not,” he said.”) Between songs, Smith reminded his audience where his inspiration to write comes from: Forgettable relationships, difficult break-ups. Yet songs like “Nirvana,” with its grand gospel chorus, were wholesome testimonies to fidelity and unrequited love. Even “My Funny Valentine,” the only full cover of the night, was done up in a grandly orchestrated version with cello and keyboards.
A group of eight musicians and singers towered behind him on risers, creating a visual that accentuated Smith’s low-key demeanor. For “Restart,” one of the more upbeat funk numbers, three backup singers joined him in a chorus line that gave his audience a group dance lesson in stepping — side to side, front and back. The thump of “Latch” followed later as did “Stay With Me,” his million-selling hit that ended the night. For “Money On My Mind,” the most contemporary-sounding songs played with its click beat, Smith included a snippet of “Finally,” the CeCe Peniston dance hit.
Smith reminded the audience that just two years ago he was unknown and playing in a vocal-piano duo around London. It was easy to see how that could be since much of Smith’s appreciative manner and self-deprecation felt fresh and not particularly strained. Near the end, he huddled with the other singers on the lip of a stage riser to sing “Make It to Me.”
Moments before, he explained the song as “a love letter to an ex-boyfriend.” “It was a painful time for me — But I refuse to be sad,” he said.
So instead of taking the usual route of striking down a foe with his voice in song, Smith cooed in four-part harmony as if to say no hard feelings and everything’s okay.