Last autumn’s sophomore effort The Thrill of It All didn’t strictly address those bumps in the road – did it really need to? – but instead furthered his reputation as a purveyor of wallowing piano-pop. There’s no artistic reinvention at Sheffield’s FlyDSA Arena as he kicks off the supporting world tour; behind the newly-cropped barnet though, his increased stage assurance offers a curious musical dichotomy for the modern white soul singer.
Famously shy in his youth, Smith is no longer the shrinking violet; under a rig reminiscent of the USS Enterprise, he seems as pleased as punch to be playing live. “Tonight, I want to take you guys away,” he promises 11,000 shrieking fans, head bowed in reflective penitence; for an hour-and-three-quarters, he delivers on those pledges by offering up two faces of the same coin.
One side is his credentials as a muscular big-band frontman in the vein of James Brown. Backed by a well-drilled five-piece outfit and four backing singers, the bombastic upscaling of his catalogue is a good fit for his idiosyncratic falsetto; paired with slick band choreography though, the propulsive dance-funk of Omen and Restart make for wildly entertaining viewing. When the brassy Baby, You Make Me Crazy unfurls itself over a breezy R&B groove, there’s almost an alternative snapshot peeking through of what could have been before in another world
The other is that quasi-religious spiritual neuroticism that serves him so well. Even discounting the tour poster that depicted him as a hipster vicar sprawled on a therapist couch-cum-chaise lounge, Smith’s love of gospel is well-established; the omnipresent massed-choir ameliorations stand testament to that.
Aside from the orchestral grandeur of Writing’s On The Wall, they bolster the rest of the evening solidly, from the lovelorn hymnals of Midnight Train and Too Good at Goodbyes to the stately swell of Stay With Me, when paper hearts topple from the rafters onto the swaying masses below. Not so much an admission of past sins; very much a commanding sermon for the soul.