Sam Smith Does It for Love, Not Money: Concert Review

Kyleen James
Buzzed-about U.K. troubadour previews his upcoming debut album in an impressive, emotionally impactful performance.

Buzzed-about U.K. troubadour previews his upcoming debut album in an impressive, emotionally impactful performance.

“I wanted to sing love songs.” Sam Smith tossed this aside into the crowd at the Belasco Theater last evening as he explained that his debut album, In the Lonely Hour, would finally emerge in June. It sounds like a simple sentiment, but hearing the 21-year-old U.K. singer’s heart-wrenching croon suggests an amendment to his statement. He should have said, “I have to sing love songs.”

If you aren’t familiar with Smith yet it’s because he’s hardly released any music. His performance on Saturday Night Live, where he sang the ballad “Stay With Me” and the hauntingly evocative number “Lay Me Down,” introduced the singer to a broader audience only weeks ago. After earning attention for his guest spot on Disclosure’s single “Latch” last year, Smith unveiled a four-song EP and two singles from his upcoming album. Which is to say that Smith has not released enough music to fill out the setlist of a headlining performance.

PHOTOS: BRIT Awards 2014: Beyonce Surprises Again, David Bowie Pleas, Arctic Monkeys Make Peace 

But Smith, clad in his usual tailored black suit and a pair of blue suede shoes with his patented slicked-back pompadour, stretched his material to exactly one hour last night at his second headlining show in Los Angeles (following a performance at the Troubadour last December). “I don’t have an album out,” the singer explained early on in the show, unabashedly grinning as he spoke. “And I wanted to share some of the music from the album with you guys. So I’m going to play some songs you don’t know.”

These numbers included emotive crooner “Leave Your Lover,” on which Smith plaintively wails, “If I can’t have you/I’ll walk this life alone.” On “I Told You Now,” the bluesy soul of the singer’s backing musicians amplified his forlorn sentiments about unrequited love. “This is about a long time ago when I was a bit drunk – like seriously drunk – and fancied someone,” Smith explained. “And I told them everything.”

If Smith music reveals anything, it’s that the young singer has been in love enough to yield an album’s worth of material to sing about it. He’s experienced it both unrequited and fulfilled, and found the unusual capacity to express those emotional nuances in a beautiful, sometimes sad, way. On the funk-laden “Money on My Mind,” the second single from his upcoming album, Smith wails, “I don't have/money on my mind/money on my mind/I do it for/I do it for the love.” Contextually, he’s talking about his label deal with Capitol, explaining the motivation for being a professional musician. But in the overall narrative of Smith’s songwriting, there is a deeper thematic note to the line “I do it for the love” that resonates throughout all of his work.

STORY: Lorde, Disclosure to Team Up for BRIT Awards Performance

It’s his sincere articulation of human emotion that’s attracted so many fans so quickly, earning Smith a burgeoning collection of admirers who feels what he feels. Couples, whispering the lines to the songs they knew, slow danced on the Belasco floor. As Smith swayed gently, clutching the microphone stand, during “Lay Me Down,” two beams of yellow light rested on his shoulder. His name, projected in red lights, was emblazed on the backdrop, the show’s lone nod to production. There was no filter between the singer and the audience as he sang, “I don’t wanna be here if I can’t be with you tonight,” his powerful, soaring voice filling the room. It was impactful in a way Adele’s songs are immediately and universally resonant, embodying loss and loneliness in a real, palpable way. Even as he covered Arctic Monkeys’ “Do You Wanna Know,” Smith imbued the chorus with tangible ache as he moaned, “Maybe I'm too busy being yours to fall for somebody new/now I've thought it through/crawling back to you.”

But Smith doesn’t seem to fully grasp the significance of his emotional impact yet. When the singer trotted onstage, after performing EP cut “Nirvana,” he marveled, “I’m genuinely in shock. I thought we would be playing a much smaller venue.” Smith beamed throughout the performance, smiling even when the emotional gravity went heavy. He enjoyed L.A., he revealed later, because he saw Danny DeVito and went to the beach (although it’s hard to imagine Smith, coiffed and in all black, sunning himself in Venice). Later, he reflected with bemused confusion, “Two years ago I was working at a bar in London cleaning toilets.”

The three-song encore, which arrived 50 minutes into the set, featured a rendition of “Latch” (which, for some reason, every person was compelled to record on their iPhone) and “Stay With Me.” The real climax, though, came as Smith said, “Speaking of Disclosure I’ve got a surprise for you. This is Howard Lawrence.” Lawrence, half of the U.K. electro group, aided Smith on keys as they debuted a collaboration off Smith’s album, “Make It to Me.” The song, an evocative piano ballad, allowed the singer’s honeyed voice to expose itself completely, finally quieting the sometimes chatty audience. It was clear, in that moment, that Sam Smith doesn’t just want to write love songs; he is compelled to perform them.

Set list:

Leave Your Lover
I'm Not The Only One
I've Told You Now
Like I Can
Not in That Way
Do You Wanna Know (Arctic Monkeys cover)
Money on My Mind
Lay Me Down
La La La


Make It to Me
Stay with Me