Live Review: Sam Smith @ TivoliVredenburg, 28.11.14

Every year there’s always at least one artist who doesn’t take that long to blow up and sell out large venues. Much like Bastille or Imagine Dragons in 2013, Sam Smith is owning 2014 with his eclectic mixture of soul and RnB. Next year will see Smith, who made his name feature on tracks by Disclosure and Naughty Boy, play the biggest venues of his career thus far. Tonight, however, he took his current tour to the Dutch city of Utrecht to play an “intimate” show at the TivoliVredenburg, together with support from Bastille Mk. II, Years and Years. Read on for a full live review.

The recently broken through London trio Years and Years opened the evening with thirty minutes of knock-off electro pop which would fit on any record Bastille made. Despite the glaring influences from Dan Smith & co, Years and Years did manage to show off relative potential in recent single Desire, before Take Shelter proved popular with the 2,000-strong crowd. They may not be unique by any means, but there is definitely a future out there for a band like Years and Years, who are also strong live performers (aided by one bassist) with a keyboardist who’s the spitting image of Will from the Inbetweeners, complete with woolly jumper.

Following a quick switchover, Smith took to the stage 10 minutes late as the large onstage curtains slowly fell to the ground, unveiling Smith’s band on a stage platform shaped like a staircase. His backing band isn’t like most, with an added string section and three black gospel singers included in and amongst the mix of keys, drums and guitars. Smith took to the stage as he and his band kicked into Nirvana, the title track from his 2013 debut EP. From the off, Nirvana showcased Smith’s brooding and soulful voice which is perfectly complemented by his three backing vocalists. Together, which features on his debut album In the Lonely Hour, followed with a mix of finger-clicking beats and wah-wah guitar licks. It proved to be one of few upbeat moments in the show, with the majority of the evening resting on Smith’s ability to pull big ballads out of the bag. It might be impressive regarding the effect all these big songs have on his voice, but the set was not as diverse as it could’ve been; a majority of the faster, more upbeat songs were left till the end. Leave Your Lover followed with an acoustic intro which saw Smith stroll around the stage casually as his background singers took a step back to leave the focus on him. “Pack up, pack up, leave everything” he emotionally sung as a whole host of teenage girls sang along at the tops of their voices. The first big reception of the night came with the soulful I’m Not the Only One, which leans heavily on the less bombastic work of Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston. A bluesy piano intro remained constant throughout the song, with Smith nearing falsetto in the chorus. Some parts are reminiscent of James Taylor and Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend, particularly in its handclap beats. I’ve Told You Now went on to slow the pace down once again as Smith took a seat on a small stool, before starting the first of various little chats he had with the audience. Like I Can started off promising as strummed guitars led to a build-up which on record is quite good but live is brought down a level as the song is turned into another ballad. This is quite a misstep, as it took a lot of active energy out of a song which could’ve been pulled off really well. This lack of energy was made up for during Restart, which saw Smith’s backing singers get up and dance across stage as they encouraged the crowd to join in by teaching them various moves. This was a nice touch, with a majority of the floor taking part.

After a slightly average opening seven songs (which was made better thanks to I’m Not the Only One’s early inclusion in the set), Smith opted to sit down once more and talk about his artistic influences. After namedropping the likes of Stevie Wonder, Etta James and Amy Winehouse, he went on to play a rendition of Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know. Unlike the upbeat disco of the original, this version saw the whole song stripped back completely to just Smith and a piano. This cover was the result of a long promotion spell in New York which spurred Smith and keyboardist Ruben to “try something new”, before choosing to cover this song on the odd occasion. It’s now become a set staple, although it could’ve been made even better with some more energy. It might be nice to see Smith showcase his fantastic voice through all these ballads, but we know that he can do it on upbeat tracks too. The string-led Good Thing followed with plucked acoustic guitars, before one of the evening’s best reactions came in the form of Naughty Boy collaboration La La La. It was given a soul-esque refurbishment which took away the breakbeat drums of the original version, instead choosing to ride the soul road whilst 2,000 enthusiastic audience members sung the “la la la” parts along. Penultimate main set track Lay Me Down made for yet another moment of calm as Smith sang of heartbreak and love, two topics which are everpresent in his lyrical content. An energetic rendition of Money On My Mind closed the main set with the utmost euphoria, as a brief cover of CeCe Peniston’s Finally was intertwined throughout the closing parts of the song. This was much to the confusion of many fans who didn’t know the song, despite Smith asking them to sing along. As Smith himself left the stage, his band played its extremely soulful outro for a while before the lights slowly faded.

With three songs left, the encore was opened by an acoustic rendition of Disclosure’s Latch, the track which saw Smith originally make a name for himself. It was another subdued track and was followed by debut album closer Make It to Me, which holds a particular load of emotional value in Smith’s heart. The show ended on Stay With Me, which is unarguably his biggest solo hit (Spotify alone states that it’s had over 167 million plays). The crowd reaction definitely justified this, as they briefly sang acapella with Smith watching along in awe. The song was dedicated to Vera, a formerly deaf girl for whom Stay With Me was the first ever song she heard since receiving hearing implants. It was a nice touch to the show, with it ending on an upbeat note as the song was given added power in its instrumentation. Sam Smith is an entertainer who, given the right tools, can make an even bigger name for himself. Admittedly it’ll take a while before he reaches unbeatable heights (he has a long way to go), but he’s definitely on the way.