Sam Smith performs the opening song of his set, “Burning,” on stage at Spectrum Center on Friday night. (Photo Credit: Benjamin Robson, Charlotte Observer)

by Théoden James, originally published by The Charlotte Observer

It isn’t exactly the most flattering way to describe an ambitious arena show by one of the biggest names in pop music today, but it’s true: Sam Smith’s “The Thrill of It All” tour — which came to Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Friday night — certainly could have been a lot worse.

In fact, the 26-year-old British crooner is the first to admit it.

“About a year ago,” Smith told the crowd, just three songs into his 21-song, 106-minute set, “when I wrote my second album and I was sitting down in my house thinking about what the show was gonna be like, I realized that my music’s very depressing. And I was very, very nervous. Very nervous to come here, ’cause I don’t want you to leave this room tonight feeling sad and like s—. So we have tried our very best in the show to make sure that you all leave this arena tonight feeling happy and feeling good.”

That was, frankly, an off-beat setup for “Lay Me Down,” a soulful ballad about loss and longing that is arguably one of the saddest songs in Smith’s punishingly sad ouevre (No words can explain, the way I’m missing you / Deny this emptiness, this hole that I’m inside / These tears, they tell their own story).

Yet somehow, someway, against fairly daunting odds, the singer’s show felt not like a pity party, but like a party party, one that featured ample opportunities to sing along, clap along, dance along, and smile along.

Despite his rep, it’s actually easy to forget that Smith has made a fair number of uptempo songs in his four(-ish) short years on the music scene. So, while he’s paid the bills with emotionally gutting, gospel-tinged tracks like “Stay With Me,” “I’m Not the Only One” and “Too Good at Goodbyes,” his show packed a surprisingly upbeat punch.

After getting things off to a brooding start by singing post-breakup ballad “Burning” — which began with him seated reflectively in a metal chair that rose from beneath the long, narrow catwalk — Smith immediately tried to change the show’s tune (so to speak) by shouting, “Are you ready to have some fun tonight?” Then came the jubilant, doo-woppy “One Last Song,” accompanied by big smiles by Smith as he sunnily waved to each quadrant of the arena.

On top of that, smack dab in the middle of the show, he ran through four straight upbeat songs (“Money on My Mind,” “Like I Can,” “Restart” and “Baby, You Make Me Crazy”) that all fly in the face of his image as a straight-up sad sack.

As for how his voice sounded, you might say it certainly could have been a lot worse; but the more accurate way to put it is that it couldn’t have been much better.

Sure, you’ve heard it said before about the great performers, that they sound even better live than they do in the studio, and yes, it seems like just a fancy way to compliment a really good singer. That said, when I say Smith sounds even better live than he does in the studio, what I mean is O… M… G…

Whether he was dancing around the stage while performing a bright, funky synth-pop song like Disclosure’s “Omen” or stripping away all the pretense and all the production-oriented bells and whistles to belt out a gospel hymn like “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” Smith’s honeyed tenor absolutely glistened — overshadowed only by a falsetto for days.

Adding to the churchy feel was a strong group of backing vocalists: Kristin Brooks, LaDonna Harley-Peters, Lucy Jules and Patrick Linton, who each got a solo turn during the Motown-flavored “Baby, You Make Me Crazy.” Jules also made the most of her chance to stand out while duetting with Smith during a haunting rendition of “Palace,” the first song of the encore.

Wearing his third outfit of the evening (a knee-length burnt-orange suit coat over a patterned black and white shirt and gray slacks, after first having changed out of a fuschia-colored suit then an emerald-green silk shirt), Smith sang down at Jules from his perch atop a gold spiral staircase inside a pyramid-shaped setpiece that had folded open from its sides.

There’s no question she can sing, and that she deserves some kind of spotlight, but I have to admit that I was a little confused as to why Smith didn’t bring his countrified opener back out for this one; after all, Cam co-wrote the song for him.

A few other odd notes:

▪ As the lights went down to start the show, the opening lyrics to “One Day at a Time” flashed onto the large vertical screens flanking the stage: “Let’s turn off our phones tonight / And rely on the stars / We’ve been so lost lately / We forgot who we are.” Since that wasn’t the leadoff song, the first line seemed like a pointed suggestion. But Smith later asked the 15,000-plus fans in attendance to hit the “on” button on their cellphone lights as he launched into “Latch,” and while it made for a spectacular visual treat, I felt like I was getting a mixed message.

▪ “HIM” — a complicated meditation on Smith’s sexuality and the conflict he feels about where that puts him in relation to religion — was certainly an empowering moment for the star and his fans. “I wrote this song as a message to anybody listening to it, that love is love,” he shouted mid-way through. “I am a proud gay man, and if you are proud of who you are tonight, Charlotte, let me see your hands in the air!” But the song ended with an unintentional bit of awkwardness when the rainbow-colored floodlight’s impact was blunted because it shined so brightly and so directly on the gigantic “Sprite Zone” logo in the rear of the upper level.

▪ At one point, Smith explained that he spent Thursday hanging out in Charlotte during an off-day from performing, which seemed to be a perfect opportunity to shout out something cool he saw or did in the city. Then he said: “I went to see ‘Jurassic World.’ Do not see it. It’s a really bad film.” (I mean, OK, but…)

Of course, those are quibbles. It’s way easier to point to something he did right.

Like all the stuff I’ve already mentioned, but also: Like blowing 2015 Bond ballad “Writing’s on the Wall” out of the water with a booming, dramatic performance flanked by Ruben James’s piano and Harry Robinson’s cello. Or busting into a buoyant line dance with his four backup singers, James (on keytar), guitarist Lewie Allen and bassist Brendan Grieve during the bridge in “Restart.” Or smiling through “Too Good at Goodbyes,” effectively shifting the tone of a song that’s essentially about getting dumped, repeatedly, into a thigh-slapping, head-bobbing singalong.

It’s all pretty remarkable — how generally fresh and fun the show was, overall — when you consider the fact that Sam Smith is only 26 years old, and that he’s filling arenas like ours after just two full-length albums, and that the first of those won four Grammys, and that the second of those has been on the Billboard 200 for 34 weeks, and that he’s a millionaire several times over.

I don’t care how sad his songs are; if I were him, I’d be singing them with a big smile on my face, too.

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