Sam Smith charms with a powerful, minimal set at Boot & Saddle

Sam Smith performs at South Philly's Boot & Saddle on Friday March 21, 2014. (Photo: Colin Kerrigan)

The 150-person room at South Philly’s Boot & Saddle was brimming with excitement Friday night. English singer-songwriter Sam Smith is already becoming a massive star in his homeland, but he just recently caught the eyes and ears of American listeners. 

Smith’s fame really took off on a global scale when Grammy-nominated, UK electronic duo Disclosure recruited the 21-year-old to sing vocals for their hit song “Latch” – from there it sparked a new level of success for both parties. At home he’s used to playing venues averaging a capacity of 500, but that’s about to change soon. He was recently invited onstage at Taylor Swift’s London 20,000 person arena concert to perform his song “Money on My Mind” alongside the American country singer. If that doesn’t sell you on this guy’s pop stardom potential, maybe nothing will. It might also help that he’s the cousin of Lily Allen and he just got asked to perform on Saturday Night Live this Saturday (Mar. 29) with Louis C.K. playing host.

I hadn’t been to a concert like this in quite some time. I’ve become accustom to the usual pre-show lull of folks sipping on their drinks while acting patient but bored, but this was an unusual vibe for such a small show – people were freaking the heck out. As soon as Smith slid onto stage with his hair slicked back perfectly, dressed in a crisp deep emerald suit, the overwhelming sounds of screams, claps and whistles took complete control of the room. Smith scanned the fanatical crowd with his piercing blue eyes as he tried to hide a bashful smile. A group of enthusiastic, mostly female, fans occupying the front row were on the verge of hysteria. “This US tour is really exciting because it gives us the opportunity to strip down our usual performance and try something new for you,” Smith said.

He kicked things off on a familiar note by performing “Nirvana,” the hazy, love-laced title track ballad off of his debut EP. Since his current catalog of songs could only occupy about a 20-30 minute time slot, he played a string of unreleased material mixed with fan favorites like “Money On My Mind,” “I’ve Told You Now,” and, of course, his own acoustic version of “Latch.”  

Smith’s voice was smooth and clean, even more impressive than on his records. Not once did he fall out of key, catch a bad note, or forget the lyrics. He even admitted before playing “Money On My Mind” that it was a bit of a challenge to sing that one live night after night, but no one could tell. He showcased a polished professionalism that many large live acts lack in the age of autotunism and lip-synching. He managed to make the small-scale, minimal 30-minute performance feel both intimate and colossal. There were no gimmicks, no crazy light show, and no wild dance moves; just a powerful voice commanding the attention of every single person in the room.

Sam Smith’s full-length debut album, In the Lonely Hour, will be available in the U.S. on June 17, 2014.