Sam Smith anything but lonely at sold-out Masonic show

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Sam Smith's sold-out concert Thursday night at Detroit's Masonic Temple was one of those catch-them-on-the-way-up performances that fans will talk about for some time to come.

The 22-year-old Brit is one of the hottest stars in music today, his crippling falsetto the soundtrack to 100,000 heartbreaks. (He's really not such a sad guy, he assured the crowd Thursday, and he plans on making his next album an upbeat one.)

Smith is up for six awards in two weeks at the Grammys, including Best New Artist and the Song, Record and Album of the Year trophies. He could win big — he's got a shot at that Album of the Year prize — in which case it will be a while before we see him in these parts in a room the size of the Masonic again. (Indeed, in other cities he's already been upgraded to arenas.)

It has all happened tremendously fast for the singer — he's only been performing proper live shows for a year and a half, he told the Masonic crowd — and his lack of stage experience showed. But he rightly put the emphasis front and center on his vocals in a casual, celebratory performance that was more easygoing than gut-wrenching. If you came looking for a good cry, you left feeling elated instead.

Smith was backed by his five-piece band and three backup singers, positioned on risers in a semi-circle at the rear of the stage. The performance often resembled an "American Idol" coronation: Smith out front, his band behind him, a handful of spotlights lighting the stage; all that was missing was Ryan Seacrest and a massive confetti drop. There were minimal distractions, visual or otherwise, and he even did a cover of "My Funny Valentine," maybe the most-performed song in "Idol" history. Add some plates of chicken and it could have been a dinner theater performance.

But Smith overcame the lack of visual whiz-bang with his gorgeous, crystal clear vocals and his genuine nice-guy affability. "It's incredible here," he told the crowd, saying he toured the catacombs of the Masonic earlier in the day. "It's (expletive) scary, but it's amazing to see."

He wore a crisp black suit and carried himself a very proper, very British manner. The show had a grown-up feel, and could just as easily have unfolded in 2005, 1985 or 1965.

Which is to say there's a timelessness to Smith and his appeal. A strong voice and cathartic songs about broken hearts will always have a place in the culture, as the monumental success of Adele proved a few years ago. In many ways, Smith is a male Adele, which is meant as a compliment: Both are singers first, stars second, and their breakthrough was based on their vocal ability and killer songs that struck a nerve. And like Adele, Smith is likely at the start of a long career.

The 80-minute concert focused on his debut album, "In the Lonely Hour," and he shared brief stories about the inspiration behind the songs, including how he book ended it with "Money on My Mind" and "Make It to Me." A three-song encore including his traditional arrangement of Disclosure's "Latch" and wrapped with "Stay With Me," his all-conquering torch song that made him a star.

The high point came during "Lay Me Down," which he opened accompanied only by piano, his band slowly joining him by song's end. Here his voice was at its most honest, trembling with emotion, and by the end of it he had a smile on his face. It was as if his music lifted him up and put him in a better place, just as it did for the audience.