Photographs by Sean Chin.
The thing about pop music is that it’s easy to like. Hear a good pop song once and you’re likely to feel well-acquainted with its structure, subject matter, and delivery. It’s easy to consume because it already feels so familiar – it doesn’t take much exertion on your part to appreciate the emotions and nostalgia it inevitably brings forth. In the music world, good pop music is the bag of potato chips.
To be fair, there’s a generous helping of it out in the world. There’s also a lot of crap.
Then there’s great pop music: the kind that overshadows everything else around it. Usually it takes more than one catchy single to convince people you’re worth the time and effort and headspace. But once you’re on the up and the mass public has cottoned on, it’s a swift climb to the top. Then? Cue the mass consumerism and general shrieking hoards. For as long as there’s been music on the radio, there have been stars that make the type of crooning, easy to please songs that generate their own cult of personality. All this is a roundabout way of saying Sam Smith is undoubtedly carrying that torch.
He’s the Michael Bublé of young, fairly hip (here’s looking at you, Disclosure collaboration!) pop music. Where his Canadian contemporary tends to croon to the moms, England’s Smith has tapped into their daughter-aged demographic – and their respective mothers, too. Turns out, this is quite a large market. Toronto turned up for Smith’s second appearance in the city, helping him sell out the cavernous Air Canada Centre – a huge leap from both his April 2014 debut at the Mod Club and his cancelled September Kool Haus date.
Those that arrived early were treated to an opening set from England’s George Ezra – a young talent with an impressively hearty voice. Taking to the stage with a big band country sound, he sounds destined for inclusion on a Coen Brothers’ soundtrack… Preferably one involving an old-timey Spaghetti Western plot.
Songs such as The Black Keys-sounding “Get Lonely With Me” and softer “Barcelona” played well, as did the radio-friendly “Budapest”. Ezra and his three-piece backing band’s first visit to Toronto was remarkably polished: a condensed seven-song set that gave the audience the Coles Notes of what to expect on his Wanted on Voyage debut, set to be physically released in North America next week. Ending impressively with the chain gang vocal tones of “Did You Hear the Rain?” that soon morphed into a more Queens of the Stone Age-like instrumental assault, it seems almost certain we’ll be hearing much, much more from Ezra in the not-so-distant future. This is a good thing.
But of course it was the night’s main attraction (Sam Smith, in case you’d forgotten) that obviously brought out the big guns and the loud screams. Smith – joined on stage by a five-piece backing band and three backup singers – was literally unveiled on the stage standing on a pedestal: a bit of an odd staging choice, given his otherwise approachable, humble demeanour. And that’s where much of Smith’s appeal lies: in how gosh darn nice he seems to be. Throw in a voice that could probably make a penguin fly or give an angel its wings and you can see where the enthusiasm for him starts to form.
In the time since his Mod Club appearance – then still green and innocent on the eve of the release of his In the Lonely Hour debut – Smith has both gotten more comfortable on stage and received more space to move around, helping to make an otherwise massive arena show seem more an intimate affair. His meteoric rise through Toronto’s venue capacities wasn’t something lost on Smith, the 22-year-old taking his time to thank the audience and gazing out with either an incredulous smile or proud nod.
Vocally it wasn’t a perfect affair (there’s a rough edge to his voice that sometimes creeps in and completely takes you out of the otherwise polished moment), but it was pretty close and certainly got better as the night went on. Any downfalls were also mostly made up for in Smith’s efforts to talk the crowd through his writing process and feelings, much of his material lying in heartbreak and yearning. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, but he does pack in the pleasurable hooks with singles such as “I’m Not the Only One” and “Money on My Mind” fairing well, as did “Like I Can” – a boisterous number that traded between well-placed audience-pandering clapping, a big drum solo, and a near a cappella finish.
“Lay Me Down” was another single that landed nicely, Smith taking his time with an emotional delivery (that’s since spurred on rumours of him ending his relationship with boyfriend Jonathan Zeizel, if you’re into that sort of celebrity gossip) that led to the night’s biggest applause.
Less positive was the electronic hook heavy Naughty Boy collaboration “La La La”. It was a track that just didn’t seem to come together well – though Smith and company’s effort on Disclosure’s “Latch” came up far better. As could be expected, an encore ending of his hit single “Stay With Me” capped off the night, sending fans home with the catchy chorus on the tips of their tongues. Again, it’s easy music to like. More importantly, Smith is talented enough to pull it off.
Thanks to Goldenvoice & Audio Blood for media access.