When you have a voice as spectacular as Sam Smith's—an instrument that can glide across multiple octaves without a break or apparent effort—the temptation to show off must be tremendous. The most impressive aspect of Smith's terrific show at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Friday night was how he resisted that impulse at nearly every turn.
Prowling the stage with a buttoned-up black shirt, minimalist brown beard, and ingratiating grin, the 23-year-old British soul singer began the show with 'Life Support.' He sang the first verse in a casual, conversational tenor that invited the listener to share the frustration of sleeping alone in a bed meant for two.
But when Smith leapt up into his unearthly falsetto for the second verse, he did so without grandstanding. There was no facial grimace, no embellishment of extra notes; he simply continued on in that same hushed confidentiality. It was as if he were trying to downplay the dumbfounding technical feat to keep the focus on the story he was telling. This, of course, made both aspects even more impressive.
He did that all night, pulling off astonishing vocal maneuvers as if they were no more than little accents in the confession he was making over a barroom table. He could jump across any interval to land on any pitch and any syncopated beat and still maintain that relaxed fullness of tone. And his band (keys, bass, drums, guitar, cello, and three harmony singers atop risers of varying height) demonstrated the same tasteful restraint.
He sang nine of the 10 tracks on his 2014 breakthrough album, "In the Lonely Hour," the bonus track 'Make It with Me,' the title track of his 2013 EP "Nirvana," his collaborations with Disclosure ('Latch'), Naughty Boy ('La La La'), John Legend ('Lay Me Down'), and Nile Rodgers ('Together'), and covers of songs associated with Amy Winehouse ('Tears Dry on Their Own'), Ashford & Simpson ('Ain't No Mountain High Enough'), Chic ('Le Freak'), and Elvis Presley ('I Can't Help Falling in Love with You').
These covers reveal an attention to history that is reflected in the quality of his songwriting: strong, memorable melodies, change-of-gear bridges, beginning-middle-end structure, and emotional transparency. The live show lacked the minimalist clarity of his recordings; the bassy, muddy mix obscured lyrics and details. But by the time Smith's gravity-defying tenor closed out the set with his signature single, 'Stay with Me,' that irresistible romantic plea swept away any doubts about the authenticity of his talent.