Sam Smith’s voice sounds like he sold his soul for it. But bless his heart, the man should have asked for some stage presence along with the deal.
The British soul sensation’s set Friday at Austin City Limits Music Festival stirred with vocal ecstasy. From the backing band’s orchestral introduction to Smith’s polite entrance — which was met with roars — to the singer’s soaring rendition of set opener "Nirvana," the scene at the Miller Lite stage was precisely what you would imagine it to be. Smith is a singular vocal talent, but the only thing missing from the package is a sense of the theatrical. (Pacing around a stage? Give the people some emphatic hand motions and stank face!)
In context, a lack of choreography — though he did attempt to lead the crowd in the electric slide for a second — is a minor quibble. The moral of the story is that a nice kid from London played smooth jazz tinged R&B to an audience big enough to apply for recognition as a sovereign nation from the U.N. and everyone absolutely ate it up. I saw a toddler in her mother’s arms shout out the words to "Stay With Me" line for line. What a world.
Because it’s a music festival, there were cover songs: a rendition of Arctic Monkeys’ "Do I Wanna Know?" with the darkness replaced with Smith’s earnest heartache and a mashup of CeCe Peniston’s 1991 dance classic "Finally" and Smith’s "Money On My Mind." The former was inoffensive; the latter was essential.
It was a pleasant early evening rendezvous with an artist whose popularity has skyrocketed since being booked on the ACL lineup. Then, Smith delivered the goods that attracted that throng stretched to the horizon. Showstopper "Stay With Me" may have closed the set beautifully, but a stripped down "Latch" saw Smith dig deepest. The wrenching performance provoked stillness with every "I won’t let go of you."
Maybe that’s the secret to Smith’s success: Let the notes do the moving your feet can’t.