Concert review: Sam Smith at Amalie Arena, Tampa

A look back at the neo-soul singer's performance this past Tue., July 21.


How do you take sublime music rooted in intimacy and present it to thousands of fans in an arena setting?

How do you thrust a fundamentally shy boy into a cavernous space, in front of adoring (and boisterous) devotees, crank the volume, and expect him to properly portray his sensitive art?

Turns out, you really can’t. Or to put it another way, Sam Smith did the best he could during his Bay area debut Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.

The good news, the really good news, is that the vocal cord surgery Smith underwent two months ago has worked, really worked. His remarkable voice is intact, still able to amaze, and at times startle with its range and pristine control.

But the emotional power of Smith’s singing rides on his capacity to immerse himself in the moment, to fully engage with melody and lyrics. In a show like last night’s at Amalie, he’s duty bound to project outward. Smith tried mightily, and mostly succeeded, in connecting with his loving audience, but he never seemed to fully connect with his music.

Dressed in muted black, he proved a classic case of a performer in search of an identity, trying to find a comfort zone. As a result, there were abundant awkward moments. (Please, Sam, no more attempts to lead the crowd in a line dance.) His stage demeanor was tentative and rote during a nearly 90-minute set, entreating the audience repeatedly to “put your hands together” and “let me hear your voices.” Even when he dialed it down and talked to the crowd between songs, his confessionals emerged as scripted and superficial.

Smith’s debut album, In the Lonely Hour, is a masterful collection of mostly torch songs, a moving break-up record. So when the words to “Not in That Way” are slap-echoing from the back of the hall, well, that tends to distract.

The 23-year-old Brit dutifully performed the entirety of Lonely Hour, supported ably by a five-piece band and three backup singers. Because he’s a newly minted star with one collection of tunes, he padded his set — with a mashup of Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own” and Marvin & Tammy’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a bit of Chic’s “Freak Out,” a snippet of “Fools Rush In,” and other detours.

The concert did contain moments when Smith rose above his surroundings. Backed by only piano and cello, he would not let “Lay Me Down” be suppressed. The ballad’s deep evocation of longing radiated from his inner reaches and washed warmly over the crowd. A spontaneous and unsolicited sing-along underscored the tune’s universal resonance.

The gospel-tinged rouser “Like I Can” delivered the kind of Big Moment so crucial to arena shows. And “Stay With Me provided an epic close.

Sam Smith has rightfully earned his pop stardom, which means we deep listeners don’t get to see him perform while leaning on a piano in a supper club. I get that.

He not only possesses extraordinary pipes but is an accomplished singer as well. That said, he has considerable maturing to do as a performer. For the time being, his handlers may want to steer him away from arenas and back into theaters.

In addition to his occasional contributions to CL Music, vet reporter Eric Snider covers the restaurant beat full-time for Tampa Bay Business Journal.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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