What I want to know is where to get giant curtains with the outline of my face on them. When Sam Smith — Grammy winner, platinum-record-haver, mainstream soul revivalist — first spoke from behind such flamboyant drapery at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday night, the audience response came as an ear-splitting scream of catharsis. Then, the curtain came down, and the noise really started.
A few bars into “Life Support,” the unlikeliness of the whole evening struck. For one thing, a babyfaced 23-year-old everyman packed the Erwin Center for a show that at times veered into smooth jazz territory. For another thing, a gay man sang love songs about men and recounted brazenly queer experiences in that same almost-full Texas arena, where throngs usually squeeze in for Longhorns basketball games.
Every single person — well-coiffed moms; black, white and Hispanic families; jumping teenage girls; gay men, women and teenagers; an adorable father-daughter pair compulsively dancing in the general admission section on the floor — sang and swayed and shouted. Underestimate the unifying power of radio-friendly ballads at your peril.
For his part in selling those arena tickets, Smith cashed every check his big-voiced reputation has ever written, gushing with appreciation and emotional clarity. On “Leave Your Lover,” the first big hit of the night, Smith’s falsetto was a crystalline mortar shell, the power of lines like “Leave your lover/leave him for me” hitting the stands like a blanket of diamonds at gale force. Smith’s technical ability has never been in question. His songwriting and connection to those big notes, however, has. When Smith sang a scornful kiss-off like “I’m Not the Only One” or a longing come-on like “Lay Me Down,” it was not sexy, really. It was gutsy, it was candid, it was vulnerable. But unlike his forebears in soul, it was not babymaking music, as they say.
Smith emphasized often over the course of evening the honesty, personal vulnerability and diaristic nature of his debut album, “In the Lonely Hour.” With repeated assessment of pre-“Hour” music as sub-par, Smith obviously found personal and artistic liberation in recording. That was most apparent in “I’ve Told You Now,” a somber tale of drunk dials gone wrong. The scorching “Nirvana” was a good thesis for Smith’s oeuvre, too: pure feeling on rafter-shaking blast, coming out of a face that wore every insecurity contained in the lyrics.
Though the rafters certainly shook Saturday night, Smith didn’t. Almost a year ago, he brought his stationary soulfulness to ACL Fest, and the uneasy, stagebound shuffling was apparent. Time did not loosen Smith’s boots: a stiffness to “Like I Can” (despite a blistering drum solo) gave way on “Restart” to the same weird, shoehorned-in electric slide tutorial he brought to Zilker Park in 2014. We wouldn’t ask “Crazy”-era Britney for vocal coaching, Sam, and we won’t ask you to teach us how to death drop.
In a show where weepy ballads were the meat, the flashy, pop-minded potatoes came at the right time toward the end. A roaring cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own” turned into a medley as Smith give his backup singers the stage for their own rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The star took backup duties. “La La La” provided the arena with its most kinetic moment of the night; if Smith is taking career advice, it would be nice to circle back on the next album to the house-inspired electro-pop that made him famous in the first place. The last number before the encore, “Money On My Mind,” broke into CeCe Peniston’s triumphant “Finally,” the welcome return of a trick Smith pulled out at ACL Fest.
The encore’s reliably lush acoustic version of “Latch” caused couples across the arena to latch onto each other. A unifying “Stay With Me” closed the evening out with the kind of kumbaya sweetness that only a bonafide radio juggernaut can. However, the most memorable moment of the night, for this writer’s money, came halfway through the set. Smith, fresh off of that Winehouse cover, explained that the inspiration for his debut album was his unrequited love for a person he had fallen head over heels for. When the singer mentioned that that person was a man, a teenage boy next to me threw his arms up and cheered.
Smith’s show tore down curtains of all kinds, and that’s worth a cheer from a single voice or from an entire arena.