If there's one thing that can be said definitively about Sam Smith, it's that he does not hide.
Smith is the sort of man who long ago introduced his heart to his sleeve and never looked back. His feelings bleed from his music, particularly his lyrics. Emotionally, Smith is an open book that rarely shuts.
Saturday night at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Smith was readily available to the throngs of adoring and screaming fans. He gave them precisely what they wanted and needed to see and hear.
Even the stage setup seemed designed to prevent Smith from disappearing. Like a set piece from a sci-fi film, the stage functioned as a portal that beamed Smith directly to our planet. A triangular platform jutted out into the center of the crowd, while a long, similarly shaped monolith loomed behind and over it. This formed a maw from which the night's hero would emerge several times via some sleight of hand.
While the audience’s attention was held by the ethereal mist whirling in the heart of the elongated pyramid, Smith, seated in a chair, slowly rose from beneath the center of the stage. The first notes of “Burning” twinkled through the air, quickly drowned out by cheers.
Once the setting was complete, what emerged was a sweet smile, a smooth voice, and a slick backing band.
For the rest of the evening, Smith visited every corner of that triangle, never turning his back on any side of the crowd for too long. He was exposed during the entirety of the concert, which is fitting because as a person and as a celebrity, Smith has never been shy about putting himself out there.
And unlike some of his past loves, Miami embraced him, prompting Smith to respond, “This is a really great fucking crowd.”
It's hard to imagine thousands of people cheering so loudly for some really, really sad songs. In fact, Smith addressed that very issue early on, joking, “I was sitting in my home and realized how fucking depressing my music is.” His mission for the night: that listeners didn’t leave the room “feeling like shit.”
Despite the typical subject material of a Sam Smith track, it's safe to say mission accomplished.
With his angelic voice, emotionally scarred lyricism, and penchant for big, gospel-like choruses, Smith is the patron saint of catharsis, heartbreak, and, eventually, renewal. It’s a role a great number of people can latch onto as a means to cope with and conquer their own crappy problems.
It wasn’t all relationship doom and gloom, however. “Omen,” his second collaboration with Disclosure, received a spiky and sweaty rock edge, complete with '80s neon lighting. Later, “Like I Can” brought another slice of retro fun with a keytar, while “Restart,” which sounds like it could have been recorded by Janet Jackson or Whitney Houston in their keytar-loving days, had both the band and the crowd two-stepping.
At one point, a fan in the audience proposed to his girlfriend (who said yes). It was a nice moment that Smith acknowledged, wishing them the best. Still, it has to be said: A Sam Smith show is an odd and even ironic event for getting engaged. Hey, what better place to express your undying love than at a show filled with songs about breaking up and outright rejection. Good luck.
Back onstage, his Grammy-winning James Bond theme, “Writing’s on the Wall,” included an extended cello and piano intro, followed by the rear of the stage blossoming. The petals of the upright triangle unfurling to reveal a sleek metal structure. After a short absence onstage, Smith reappeared on the opposite end. It was a bit theatrical misdirection; however, there's no trickery when it comes to Smith’s vocal talent and how he decides to use it.
By this point in his career, it's obvious to anyone with ears that the man can sing. Whether he’s serenading us with the acoustic version of “Latch,” the song that first acquainted so many fans with the English singer, or “Money on My Mind,” another one of the few jangly, upbeat grooves of the evening, what Smith is and can do is pretty straightforward.
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So much of Smith’s music feels familiar and welcoming. He has learned well from his heroes across genres and timelines in the worlds of Motown, doo-wop, R&B, soul, and '80s pop. Yet he can transform these well-worn melodies into something new and all his own.
Case in point is “Say It First,” a song that is sad as hell but also one of the prettiest on his latest record, 2017's The Thrill of It All. In concert, it found him hitting some of the highest notes of the night, while potentially being at a low point emotionally when he wrote it. “Midnight Train,” another standout from the new LP, was performed gorgeously; the audience was unable to do anything but bask in the glory of crescendos while being gutted by the idea that sometimes the best thing to do is say goodbye to someone you love.
Yes, his biggest hits, such as “Stay With Me” and “Too Good at Goodbyes,” are total bummers, but Smith never needed to worry that Miami would leave the arena feeling down. Through his beautiful voice and words, Sam Smith continually leaves himself vulnerable, and as long as he stays true to himself, fans will always love him for that and for inspiring them to do the same.