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Sam Smith live in London: liberation and joy form the heart of riotous pop show

Live at London's O2 Arena, Sam Smith proves why they're one of pop's most formidable live performers

5.0 rating

By Cliff Joannou

Sam Smith performs live (Picture: Alamy)

It’s no surprise that in recent years Sam Smith has been on a journey of self-discovery, with latest album Gloria an unapologetic manifesto of that evolution from commercially palatable balladeer to a sexuality and gender-identity pop pioneer – or provocateur, depending which news sources or social media trolls you follow. This exploration reaches an orgasmic climax in the Gloria live tour, a tremendous statement on love, freedom, beauty, body positivity and beyond, with the show divided into corresponding themes.

An enormous metallic golden Aphrodite dominates the set, from one end to the other of the vast O2. Foregoing the trend in recent years for (cheaper) digital/graphic backdrops, it’s a welcome return to stage production that we have lavished over at other recent arena spectacles, notably The 1975’s superlative ‘At Their Very Best’ tour. Pop superstars take note: the bar has been raised. 

“This show is about freedom… I want you to feel safe,” Sam says after opening with ‘I’m Not The Only One’, ‘Like I Can’ and ‘Too Good At Goodbyes’, serving those tender yet rich vocals for their more mainstream fans as the crowd readily anticipates the night inevitably building towards Sam’s more recent club-ready material. Although, hints of the direction of travel are there from the outset in the golden corseted opening outfit.

In a week that has seen a continued rise of anti-LGBTQ+ attacks through online hatred and real-life violence, including a suspected arson attack on the home of two trans people and a gay man in London’s Whitechapel, it’s impossible not to see this show as a political proclamation of self-identity. This is Sam’s defiant rally against those that are determined to undermine anybody who does not fit the socially fixed idea of what ‘normal’ looks like. I glance around, to my left are a group of women in their sixties, teenage girls in front of me, while queer fans and middle aged straight couples all around join Sam’s call for a more tolerant world built around individuality and acceptance… and love.

Sam’s statement reaches a compelling climax when they perform a cover of ‘I’m Kissing You’ – originally by Des’ree, from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet film soundtrack – while wearing a crown bearing the name Brianna Ghey, the 16-year-old trans girl who was killed in February in a suspected hate crime. The song’s new arrangement adds thundering beats, building to an emotional climax that pulls the crowd into silence.

When Sam returns, the lights go down and the tone gets deeper, darker, heavier: “I wanna see you turn the O2 into a gay bar,” they say before we rollercoaster into the Calvin Harris collab ‘Promises’ and indulge a Disclosure classic in ‘Latch’ before a now topless Sam throws us into an LSD dream with a hypnotic dance routine to the Donna Summer classic ‘I Feel Love’.

It’s a suitable segue into the final act of the show, opening with the harmonic choir vocals of Gloria. Sam is covered in full white veil and crown (which, likely, inadvertently gives off Moira vibes from David and Patrick’s wedding in Schitt’s Creek). The veil is removed and there stands Sam in full fetish queer cabaret mode for a stripped back take on Madonna’s Human Nature. In their Rolling Stone UK cover shoot earlier this year, Sam paid homage to their childhood heroes: Lady Gaga, Britney, ABBA, et al. Here, the artist brings them all to life, manifesting them through dance routines, the outfits, the attitude.

Para-phrasing Madonna’s Human Nature here, Sam sings: “Express yourself don’t repress yourself / Oops I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex / I’m not sorry / I’m not you bitch don’t hang your shit on me.” It makes for the perfect clap-back to those detractors that feel they have the right to dictate what sexual expression should look like and who it can come from. “Welcome to my gay cabaret,” Sam exclaims as the finale comes with a pounding rendition of ‘Unholy’ that leaves the stage in literal flames.

There’s no need for an encore. Sam has spoken, they’ve said their piece, and the world is a somewhat freer and more liberated place for those that have the open mind to let the words sink into their hearts. Glorious.