At his first headline show in Manchester, Sampha shows he’s as comfortable in the spotlight as in the shadows ahead of his debut album’s release, writes Harrison Kersey
23rd November at Academy 2
If the name Sampha rings any bells for you, it is likely due to his otherworldly guest spots on SBTRKTs eponymous 2011 debut. His smoky, tentative performances on standout tracks like ‘Something Goes Right’ and ‘Hold On’ dripped emotion and showed off a serious vocal range. Since then, Sampha has been elusive; despite his obvious star quality he has only released a six-track EP as a lead artist, otherwise sticking to features and remixes for the likes of Drake, Solange Knowles and Frank Ocean. The cover of 2013’s Dual captures this ephemeral presence — with his face in shadow, Sampha comes across as uncertain as his voice.
However, in February the man in the shadows stepped into the spotlight with the release of his debut full-length, Process. In support of the album he announced three pre-release UK shows, and after some last-minute haggling this reviewer bagged a ticket. Support was provided by Kelsey Lu, a singer and cellist from New York who has collaborated with Dev Hynes of Blood Orange. Not your typical warm-up act, Lu gave a sparse but powerful performance; alone on stage with minimal lighting effects, her rich voice captivated about half the crowd. Sadly, those who had come just for the main event were not so drawn in, with a pre-gig buzz of conversation audible throughout her set.
Support done, and after a solid half hour of setup, the time came for Sampha to take the stage. Big and broad, he didn’t look like the guy singing about his emotions on ‘Hesitant Oath’. Flanked by four musicians, including a wardrobe-changed Kelsey Lu on cello and backing vocals, he greeted the audience with a big grin and a few words of thanks before opening with a tune from the new album. Complex arrangements immediately apparent, each person on stage seemed to be playing some kind of percussion as well as their instrument. The man himself held things down on two keyboards and a drum pad, without missing a note of his stunning vocals. As the show wound on through new material punctuated with a few SBTRKT tunes (sadly just from 2013 release Wonder Where We Land), the moments which stood out most were the transitions; the shift from quiet to loud on lead Process single ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ was phenomenal, as the song moved from a low-key, woozy synth line to a climactic outburst of emotion.
Another memorable track was second single ‘Blood On Me’, a frenetic meltdown made more unnerving in live rendition. A few songs did feel a little directionless, with angsty atmospherics leading nowhere, but the consistently on-point vocal interplay between Sampha and Lu often made this forgiveable. The fact that much of the material had not been heard before also gave a sense of anticipation to the whole show, with the crowd waiting for either a new sound or a throwback tune like ‘Hold On’, neither of which ever really came. This said, there is nothing wrong with the sound of the new album; if anything its consistency should be its strength as Sampha fleshes out his sound. Based on this performance, when Process drops on the 3rd of February, I would recommend you check it out.