Sampha is a showman but he’s not a show-off. Unlike his collaborators Kanye West and Drake who have built careers of part-ego, part-talent, the British soul innovator very rarely talks outside of his music. In the beginning of his career he was labelled as somewhat of an enigma but as he delivered an outwardly warm debut performance at the Sydney Opera House you got the feeling that there’s nothing enigmatic about him at all. He just feels everything that needs to be said, can be said in the music.
After a whimsical, gradual opener ‘Plastic 100°C’, Sampha introduced himself to the audience politely and moved onto the next song, the soaring ‘Timmy’s Prayer’. That was about as much as we heard from him outside of the music for the entire set. He definitely has a shy nature when the music dims, but his piano was positioned as far forward as it could be and at numerous times he came out from behind it, letting everyone in with big notes and natural dance moves.
Sampha was at the centre with three other musicians, each dressed in black. The stage aesthetic was minimal but effective with an illuminated semi-circle making it look as if they were performing in a miniature version of the Hollywood Bowl. Anyone who pulled out a phone was told to put it away by ushers, creating an audience that all had their attention on Sampha.
The first thing to marvel at was Sampha’s voice. It’s soulful and smooth but it’s also got a gritty quality that adds an unexpected depth to each song. Ballads like ‘Too Much’ allowed us to really hear it soar as he took every moment of instrumental silence to elongate his notes. It’s clear to see why he’s one of the rapper’s go-to hook makers as he has the power to stir emotion in just a handful of notes.
Every song had an effortless bounce to it and even in a seated crowd it felt like everyone was in the same groove, slowly moving back and forth. ‘Reverse Faults’ set one of the most infectious grooves, with Sampha stretching out his hands, as if to grab every beat that flew past. It was in moments like this and during his rendition of ‘Under’ that you forgot how good his voice was and enjoyed every element of the performance. The energy he exudes is so warm and he is such a competent musician that the set never felt anything but comfortable, in the best way.
Sampha’s subject matter had the potential to make moments of the set quite sad. He lost his mother to cancer in 2015 and a number of the lyrics on his excellent debut album Process centre around that. On ‘Kora Sings’ he sings, “You’ve been with me since the cradle…please don’t disappear,” but live there was an optimistic spirit to it. He smiled as the world-flavoured synths swirled and the lights swelled behind him. Piano ballad ‘(No One Know Me) Like The Piano’ had the same emotions attached to it but Sampha delivered a more soulful, R&B rendition live and, once again, it felt warm.
Of course, he’s the man that made a name for himself on danceable SBTRKT jams, and while he didn’t give us any of those he reminded us that he can still start a dancefloor. The anxious percussion of ‘Blood On Me’ overtook while the alarming red lights circled on stage. It got more and more ferocious, even more so than on the record, conjuring more energy in the room than any song in the set.
He ducked off stage quickly before the encore, returning with his band huddled around a set of drums. With the drums rollicking, the four of them launched into ‘Without’ creating the most beautiful, communal, celebratory moment to finish on. Everyone was on their feet, dancing with large smiles planted and after the week that it’s been, there was something really reassuring about that.