Music News & Reviews

Soul searching: Sam Smith’s potent sound is diluted at Kansas City’s Sprint Center

Sam Smith performed Saturday, August 18, 2018 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
Sam Smith performed Saturday, August 18, 2018 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Special to the Star

Sam Smith shouted “love is love, I’m a proud gay man” at the Sprint Center on Saturday.  

The proclamation during an adamant rendition of “Him,” the gospel-steeped prayer of a man attempting to reconcile his faith with his sexuality, was cheered by an audience of about 10,000.

Smith, a silken British vocalist who can be considered the male equivalent of the balladeer Adele, performed almost two hours of sultry ballads, simmering soul and bracing social critiques like “Him.”  He acknowledged the challenge of playing in venues he characterized as “massive” by sharing a recent moment of clarity in which he “suddenly realized how depressing my music actually is.”

He and a nine-piece backing ensemble attempted to fill the space with an admirably unusual production.  The stage consisted of a narrow runway that caused the concert to resemble a fashion show.  Smith underscored the effect with two wardrobe changes.  He crooned “Palace” from the top of a spiral staircase encased in an unfolded pyramid.  The band conducted a modified version of the electric slide as Smith waved a rainbow flag during the uplifting funk jam “Restart.”

These striking effects weren’t enough to project the gentle nuances of Smith’s languid material.  Undercooked ballads such as “Say It First” fell flat.  Smith’s intimate material is suited for elegant supper clubs rather than cavernous sports arenas.  The grand scale of “Writing’s on the Wall,” the theme song of the 2015 James Bond film “Spectre” (Adele sang the theme of the previous Bond movie), was one of the few selections big enough to fill the room.

Smith instigated an internet kerfuffle earlier this month when his casual aside about not liking the music of Michael Jackson went viral. Indignant commentators expressed outrage at his alleged insensitivity.  While Smith is susceptible to accusations of cultural appropriation, Saturday’s concert further affirmed that his sound isn’t indebted to Jackson.  Instead, he’s under the influence of big-voiced, gospel-informed soul divas like Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Mary J. Blige.

He closed the concert with “Stay With Me” and “Pray,” swelling compositions that might not have been possible without Franklin’s influential melding of soul and gospel.  It’s extremely odd, consequently, that Smith didn’t acknowledge Franklin’s recent passing.  

The opening act Beth Ditto knew better. The arty dance-punk cult hero delivered a spirited reading of Franklin’s version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”  It’s dispiriting that Smith didn’t take Ditto’s lead.

Sam Smith set list: Burning; One Last Song; I’m Not the Only One; Lay Me Down/I Sing Because I’m Happy; Omen; Nirvana; Writing’s on the Wall; Latch; Money on My Mind; Like I Can; Restart; Baby, You Make Me Crazy; Say It First; One Day at a Time; Midnight Train; Him; Too Good at Goodbyes; Palace; Stay With Me; Pray.

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