Article/Images: Lesley Keller
“How can he be so sad, but so lit at the same time? How?” That sentiment was voiced by a guy in the crowd for Sampha during the first of a 3 show sold-out run at Webster Hall. Coming off a 6-year hiatus and fresh off his stellar release, Lahai, Sampha made a bold statement that he’s back and better than ever. One of the few releases this year that has been in steady rotation for me, I jumped at the chance to see him perform for the first time at the iconic NYC venue. Packed to the walls up to the edge of the balcony, his steadfast fans were primed and ready to hear what he had to offer once again.
Warming the crowd up, Ruthven, who also happens to play in Sampha’s band, took his position behind a keyboard off to the side of the stage. Tentatively he slipped into his set, nailing some impressive falsetto runs that had my eyebrows raised. While the keyboard was the sole live instrumentation, he did have programmed drums that injected some much needed body and bass, punctuating his beautiful vocal delivery.
Progressing into Sampha’s set, the lights glowed dimly, setting the mood. A gauzy material was strewn across a handful of steps laid across the stage. At the top, Sampha appeared, almost as if on a pedestal from where he’d conduct his sermon. The audience responded in kind. Barely did I see any phones held up with people broadcasting to their friends on social media. Everyone in the room was truly in the moment, soaking up every word and heartfelt lyric. “Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream)” along with “Satellite Business,” “Suspended” and my personal favorite and current obsession, “Spirit 2.0” made their way into the setlist. What I absolutely did not expect was Sampha scampering up to the edge of the stage for some dancing. As someone who rarely dances in public, I admired his bravery to be the one to get the party started.
Sampha’s band was also an important element to this show undoubtedly. They all lended vocals and handled multiple instruments throughout the evening that added richness to the audio. With Sampha’s honeyed vocals supported by such lush instrumentation, it sounded so close to the studio recording I found myself wondering how on earth did they manage to pull that off. Every tiny little ding or clang on the album appeared, and helped me fully appreciate the time and effort that Sampha and his crew put into this production. Flashy lights and elaborate backdrops clearly aren’t necessary when the music sounds this good. His ability to meld the most tender lyric with the most unexpected sonic elements is a talent. Is it me, or did he somehow find a way to add the iconic THX sound into the mix too?
However, when the lights flashed over to deep red, it signaled the beginning of “Blood On Me,” which earned Sampha his loudest and most extended round of applause during the performance. The emotion and intensity everyone onstage poured into the delivery of that song was truly something to behold. That “sad but lit” delivery Sampha has seemed to master might seem at odds with each other, but it’s a relatable dichotomy I’m sure many of us have held at one point or another, but is very apparent these days. Smiling in the face of what seems like the world is ending… check! Tapping into the emotions on both sides of the spectrum is such a human experience that I’ve come to appreciate about Sampha’s music and one that will bring me out to his live shows again and again.