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Sam Smith Was Far More Than a Sad Poet at Roy Wilkins

Sam "Stay With Me" Smith

Sam "Stay With Me" Smith

Sam Smith
Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul
Saturday, January 24, 2015

They screamed when there was a chance he might finally be arriving onstage. They screamed when the songs playing over the P.A. faded out. They screamed when those sitting on either side of Roy Wilkins Auditorium saw that he actually was walking onto the stage. They screamed when he opened with a deep cut. They screamed when a curtain dropped to reveal another drape adorned with his face. They screamed when that second curtain dropped to reveal his actual face.They screamed as the ridiculously tall riser lowered him down to Earth. They screamed when he went into his first falsetto. Of course, they screamed loudest when he name-checked St. Paul.

In some spots, the sound was as deafening as My Bloody Valentine's jet-engine-decibel-reaching 2013 gig in the same room. This time, though, it was all the ticket-buyers' doing.

See also:
Slideshow: Sam Smith Woos Fans at Roy Wilkins

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"He" is British soul sensation Sam Smith, whose debut album In the Lonely Hour has produced the massive hits "Stay With Me" and "I'm Not the Only One" and catapulted him to arenas in cities across the country, sometimes in his first visits to those locales. "They" represents the multitude of adoring fans that have latched onto Smith in the eight months since his first full-length was released, of whom about 80 percent are female, judging by the sold-out crowd for Smith's show at Roy Wilkins Saturday night.

According to what Smith told the crowd midway through his 16-song set, this almost-arena gig actually wasn't his first time through the Twin Cities. He recounted playing for 20 people in Minneapolis, to the surprise of most of the audience (and to Google's -- no record of that show seems to exist, but he was fairly unknown in the U.S. until his and Disclosure's "Latch" became a hit here in 2014).

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Backed by five musicians and three singers arranged on cascading risers, Smith sang all but one track from In the Lonely Hour ("Not in That Way") Saturday night. He supplanted those songs with a cover (Hal McIntyre's "My Funny Valentine"), non-album tracks ("Together," "Make it to Me") and renditions of songs he's featured on ("Latch," Naughty Boy's "La La La").

The London native is only 22 years old, but his stage presence suggests he's been performing live for at least that long. Decked out in a black suit, Smith worked the crowd politely but effectively and actually made the cavernous venue feel half its size. During one of several Storytellers-esque interludes throughout the night, Smith talked about having a manager at the age of 12 and singing "the shittiest songs you've ever heard."

"One of the things I wanted to do with this tour is tell people about the stories behind the songs," Smith told the crowd early on. Otherwise, he said, "people think I'm just this sad guy who writes poetry at night."

Other than having just broken up with his boyfriend, Smith doesn't seem to have much to be sad about these days. In the Lonely Hour has sold upwards of three million copies worldwide and garnered six Grammy nominations. The cheapest ticket for his 5,000-capacity St. Paul gig was $50. Not bad for being at the age where many move back home right after college graduation.
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Rather than let everyone know that he's as happy as a clam, what Smith's storytelling segments actually did was give much-needed insight into songs that are often too bland lyrically, as pretty as his voice might be. For instance, he revealed that "I've Told You Now" was written with a hangover the night after he drunkenly told someone he loved them. The singer also said that "Good Thing," one of two tunes he played accompanied only by piano, was written the day before deleting its subject's number from his cell phone. "It was good for the album and good for my career, I guess," he said with a laugh.

As is common for new acts with only one or two records under their belt, the songs that have been really good for Smith's career were saved until the end. "I'm Not the Only One" was offered up to casual fans as the fourth song of the set, but that likely wouldn't have dented the Billboard charts without help from "Stay With Me" and "Latch." As the encore opener, the latter was given a stripped-down treatment, free of the bleeps and bloops of his recorded version with Disclosure.

Following a stab at In the Lonely Hour bonus track "Make It to Me," "Stay With Me" predictably served as the encore finale. It was a true-to-the-record airing of the song, showing off Smith's impressive vocal range but not providing the most energetic of outros. The crowd indeed did as the song's title asked and stayed with Smith through the end, or at least until he left the stage. Once the singer was out of sight, however, attendees started picking up their coats and checking their cell phones, which was a bit rude considering that Smith's backing band continued playing for another minute or so.

I suppose "Hey, Listen to My Band!" doesn't have quite the same ring, though.

Critic's Bias: If anything, a negative one. I had only heard "Latch" and "Stay with Me" before Saturday's concert. I have no quibbles with the Disclosure collaboration, but I've never been able to get past the striking similarity of "Stay with Me"'s chorus to that of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down." However, I realize that's bound to happen every once in awhile in pop music. At least Petty is going to get royalties from the song now.

The Crowd: From what I saw on Twitter, the polar opposite of last Friday's 12 Rods show at First Avenue. That one was apparently all dudes. I don't feel like my estimate of four women to every man is an exaggeration.

Overheard in the Crowd: When Smith was talking about his ex-boyfriend, "Did he just say 'he'?" Not everyone has an Internet connection, I guess.

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