“I hope you’re ready to have a properly good night tonight!”
On American soil, the quickest way to establish yourself as British is to use “proper” as an adjective or adverb. This is not something I expected to be thinking about on the Fourth of July in the birthplace of modern democracy. Yet there I was, listening to a cheeky Englishman in a red coat wistfully croon about his love life.
To be fair, Sam Smith is not your garden-variety lad: He’s a proper superstar. With 2014’s In The Lonely Hour and its megahit, the clingy-person-anthem “Stay with Me,” Smith gripped the Brit-soul baton and ran, through to the release of last year’s The Thrill of It All.
Breezing through Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center in support of that latest album, Smith delivered a live experience that was much livelier than his doleful rep might suggest. Not always the most graceful navigator of his own fame, Smith, 26, also seems to have grown into himself as a person, performer and advocate — an air of self-assurance that informed every second of his Wednesday show.
Given Smith’s signatures — honey-dipped vocals, falsetto for weeks and melancholic songwriting, all heavily influenced by the African American traditions of soul, R&B and gospel — it wasn’t a shock to see most of the audience sitting down through much of an opening set from country artist Cam.
The “Burning House” singer, who augmented her own material with an incredible cover of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams,” was conversational in her warm-up, advocating for inclusion in a manner Smith would later put a finer point on. “I don’t care about your religion. I don’t care what your politics are,” she bubbled, encouraging us to throw our arms around our neighbors. “You’re a human being, and I f- love ya!”
Smith started off sitting down, too, rising into view from beneath the stage parked in one of those metal Ikea chairs you see at popular brunch places. Decked out in a suit, with a plain tee instead of a tie — more a dusty pink than a red, for you color sticklers out there — he and his band started with “Burning,” a hopeless breakup ballad realized in the most Smithian sense possible (“no insurance to pay for the damage / Yeah, I’ve been burning up since you left”).
I was a little worried that the entire thing was going to be a drag. But then Smith popped to his feet, offering holiday greetings and picking up the energy with the doo-woppy “One Last Song” and jazzy “I’m Not the Only One” — songs that are also definitely about misery in love, just at a slightly faster tempo.
Turns out I was not the only one wondering how Smith’s overall approach would translate live. “A year ago, as I was finishing my last album, I thought, ‘F-, my music is so depressing,’” he admitted in a bit of self-deprecating between-song banter. “I was scared that you guys would leave this room feeling sad.”
To Smith’s surprise, he continued, he’s had the opposite experience on tour thus far. Credit should go to his set list organization and supporting musicians. They abut “Lay Me Down,” a heart-wrenching piano-centric piece off The Lonely Hour, with elements of the uplifting gospel standard “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Tracks like “Omen,” one of his early, dance-inducing collaboration with Disclosure; and the 1980s-adjacent “Restart,” for which Smith and his band offered a charming Chicago two-step, made up the meat of the performance, preventing the mood from sinking as he sprinkled in his slower-paced stuff.
The award for Smith’s single best performance of the night has to go to “Writing’s on the Wall,” his Oscar-winning theme from the 2015 James Bond film Spectre. Backed by keys and strings, he belted it out alone from a raised platform in the front of the stage, as the tepee-like structure behind him slowly opened up like a blossoming orchid. It made for an absolutely cinematic moment — which was not lost on Smith whatsoever. “How f- dramatic was that!” he quipped after wrapping up.
Though he made it clear he’s got a good sense of humor about himself, Smith did set aside some time to make some statements. “Him,” off Thrill, explores the struggle of a gay man who can’t understand why his faith, and society at large, won’t accept him (“Holy Father, judge my sins / I’m not afraid of what they will bring / I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted / I love him”).
Smith, who’s candidly discussed his sexuality since the beginning of his career, is not an edgy act by most mainstream pop standards. But in a genre that strives to keep such topics vague in the hopes of casting the widest possible sales net, recording this song, and proudly performing it, is a subversive act. I witnessed several people in my section physically reacting to this particular track, sitting down huffily and shooting each other judgmental looks, while many others stood and passionately sang along. I think this means it worked.
A joyous three-song encore — the stirring “Palace”; the anticipated “Stay with Me,” which was accompanied by a Sixers-style confetti drop; and recent single “Pray,” another self-reflective neo-gospel offering — wrapped up the singer’s time. For a Londoner to make an impression in Philly on Independence Day, he’s got to bring it, and Smith didn’t skimp.