Sam Smith (right) with Mary J. Blige | Photo: Getty
To truly appreciate Sam Smith’s music, you have to see him live. It’s not because his music sounds all that much different than it does recorded—though it does—it’s because when you see Smith perform you experience his music the way he does.
Smith doesn’t just work a crowd; he makes it fall in love with him. Slightly demure and giving off just enough of that adorable British awkwardness that Americans find so appealing, Smith doesn’t seem like the globe-trotting rising soul superstar that he is. From the way he waves at you—or rather people in your general direction—locks eyes with you—or, again, the people in your vicinity—he comes off as approachable. It's almost as if he’s afraid to make the first move—and the whole affair feels shyly flirtatious and intensely intimate.
Of course, it isn’t. But that’s the point.
Last night, I was one in a sea of 1,500 people at New York City’s Apollo Theater in Harlem. Smith, who grew up listening to soul records, decided to mark the occasion of his debut album, In the Lonely Hour, by coming Stateside and performing at the one-time epicenter of soul. In the Lonely Hour is inspired by his unrequited love for a yet unnamed gentleman. When you see Smith perform his heartfelt, sometimes disarmingly honest, songs live I—in an evanescent spell of mimicry—began crushing on him, knowing full well that there is no possible way he can feel the same. Smith gave us in the audience a taste of what he felt, a love unreturned, and therein lies the magic of seeing him live: a visceral experience that his music—divorced from its maker—cannot convey.
By the time Smith ended his set—with a surprise duet of “Stay With Me” with Mary J. Blige—I’d been charmed nearly to the point of picking out wedding china. Seeing Sam Smith live is more than a musical journey, it’s an emotional one.