By BRUCE DENNILL
Sam Smith – The Thrill Of It All World Tour / Ticketpro Dome, Randburg, Johannesburg
There’s a lot that someone who hadn’t seen footage of Sam Smith’s The Thrill Of It All world tour would have expected when arriving for his Johannesburg show: polished pop; clean, clear, high vocals and the sort of British matinee idol charm offered by the likes of Robbie Williams in his prime. Happily, that is all delivered, with expectations met and exceeded within the first couple of songs.
What many might not have expected is the wide-eyed, unabashed joy generated by Smith and his excellent band – four backing singers, a cellist, a guitarist, a keys player, a bassist and sublime drummer Jonathan “Ginger” Hamilton – in the opening segment of a set that is never less than engaging.
Smith strides onto stage – he has a model’s swagger – with a smile on his face that soon becomes a goofy grin as he realises that pretty much everyone in the sold-out Ticketpro Dome knows every word of every song he’s going to sing and that he and his work are hugely appreciated here. It’s clear that much thought, careful design and endless rehearsal have gone into the way this concert is presented. There is the stage design itself – a triangle pointing out into the audience rather than a flat rectangle at one end of the room, allowing for increased interaction with the audience and some striking lighting motifs that add atmosphere and keep the focus on the singer – as well as upbeat choreography, often involving all of the band except those members whose instruments require them to sit to play.
But world-class technical skills are a requirement in any high-profile concert. Where this show shatters expectations is in its feeling like a celebration rather than the simple presentation of much-loved music. The delight that Smith exudes is immediately infectious, with the bulk of the crowd rising to their feet during the opening chords of the first song and staying there for the duration of the show. And it looks as though that positive attitude is fed and made sustainable by the relationships within the band, with Smith regularly sharing off-mic asides and quick hugs with bandmates and, during an interlude, turning his back on the audience as he and the backing vocalist stood in a circle and performed a beautiful, brief a capella piece.
Smith’s performance highlights how rare it is to see a singer enjoy him- or herself this much on stage, and the potent emotional punch this approach delivers confirms that having elation and exultation communicated through art is infinitely more satisfying – if you’re standing in the audience – than watching purely technical brilliance.
There’s not a weak song in the set, and well-engineered dynamics, in each song and in the concert as a whole, ensure maximum impact whether the song in question is a dance tune, a ballad or a pure pop single.
Lay Me Down – the first single off Smith’s debut album and by his admission here, “the song that changed my life”, rises from near sonic emptiness to heart-stirring crescendo. Like I Can’s persuasive groove and singalong hook make for a party atmosphere. And the stirring power of HIM, with a lyric line that perhaps best encapsulates Smith’s difficult journey coming to terms with both fame and his sexuality and the muscular instrumental arrangement that supports it, is arguably the highlight of the night.
Smith’s good humour lasts the distance as well as his voice (if anything, he sounds better live than on record), with the best example of this at the end of the first song in the encore, Promises. Smith has emerged from backstage in his third outfit of the night, the focal point of which is a large and colossally lurid shirt/blouse/tunic affair in gold, silver and black. The club- and catwalk-friendly rhythms of the song make a fair bit of mincing around the stage more or less mandatory, and as the tune’s final chords are played, Smith crumples out of the pose he’s holding and giggles into his microphone: “Wow, that got gay! So gay!” before laughing and grinning his way – now triumphantly – into the final song.
Enormous over-delivery on what were initially high expectations: the Cape Town leg of Smith’s South African stint are the last of the current world tour, but if there are plans to change the formula when he heads out on the road in support of the next album, the singer and his team will need to be exceptionally creative to better what they’ve achieved here.