Soulful singer/songwriter Sam Smith exploded seemingly out of nowhere this year with the hugely successful single “Stay With Me.” Fans in his native U.K. have known about his sensitive songs and amazing voice for a couple of years and now fans stateside are catching up in a big way. Last night we were happy to welcome them and their hero to his first Austin City Limits taping.
In the tradition of the soul singers of yore, Smith took the stage as his eight-piece band was already a minute into “Nirvana,” the title track of his early EP. The song began as a ballad, but moved into anthem territory, a method with which Smith fans are intimately familiar. A funkier backbeat ruled “Together” from the same EP, pumping up the energy, not that the eager audience needed it. Smith then took us on a tour through the unrequited love that drives his debut album In the Lonely Hour, from the midtempo “Good Thing” and the jazzy “I’m Not the Only One” to the dramatic ballads “Lay Me Down” (which garnered tears and cuddling couples in the audience) and “Leave Your Lovers” (“one of my favorites on the album,” he noted). He also took time out to pay tribute to a key influence by covering Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” as a piano ballad and teaching the audience to dance with his new single “Restart.” He ended the main set with a mashup of a pair of his tunes, the anthemic ballad “Money On My Mind” and the discofied “Finally.” “I don’t care if you can’t sing at all,” Smith insisted to the crowd, “please sing as loud as you can.”
Smith and band returned with “Latch,” his U.K. hit with the electronic act Disclosure, done here as a midtempo pop tune, before going into “Make It to Me,” a song he described as a “massive mating call.” But it was the final song that truly raised the roof. The opening chords of “Stay With Me” drew a roar, and Smith exhorted the crowd to clap along. Audience comfortably instilled in the palm of his hand, Smith then released them by dropping the band out, letting the fans take a chorus by themselves, sounding like a church choir. It was an explosive end to a strong ACL debut, and we can’t wait for you to see this show for yourselves when it airs on PBS early next year.