A giant illuminated semicircle sat behind Sampha as the London-based R&B singer opened for The xx at Saturday’s sold out show at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The structure shifted in hue through every few songs in Sampha’s set, moving through the full spectrum of colors from a deep evening blue to a gorgeous sunset gradient, setting the mood and leaving everything on the stage, including Sampha himself, coated in its glow. More than just a dramatic and beautiful set piece, the half-moon also performed the enormous task of being the only part of Sampha’s show that gave any semblance of unity or coherence.
To be fair to Sampha, this lack of coherence didn’t stem from any fault of his as a performer. As far as his stage presence, his energy and his setlist were concerned, he’d covered all of his bases.
Sampha’s sense of pacing was impeccable. He alternated between crooning gently to slower tracks in the center of the stage and moving back and forth across the stage, bouncing along to his own music during more danceable songs. He never got too caught up in any one tempo. The fact that he was able to keep up with his own rapid changes was impressive in itself. Despite all of this, there was something just a bit off about the performance. Whether he was moving or standing still, he exuded a magnetic energy that, for whatever reason, no matter what he tried, never quite seemed to stick or to resonate.
The problem in Sampha’s set, then, seemed to stem from his planning. His show appeared to be built for a much smaller venue — or at least for one where Sampha himself was the main act. In light of the fact that Sampha became background music to a crowd who seemed to have only The xx in mind, the variety that Sampha’s set offered felt almost like plea for attention. He stopped seeming like an accomplished performer who could plan an exciting show and hold his own on stage. Instead, he began giving off an air of desperation. He seemed to realize that his voice and performance could hardly fill the venue, let alone command it.
It wasn’t until more than halfway through his set, when Sampha began performing “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” that the crowd’s undivided attention turned to him. The warmth and beauty of Sampha’s voice quickly melted away the barrier that had existed between him and the crowd. The sounds of the growing audience faded into background noise to Sampha’s angelic vocals and piano.
Yet, the barrier rebuilt itself just as quickly after the song finished. Fortunately for Sampha, that barrier had been shattered into too many fragments to ever be fully pieced back together. For the short remainder of his performance, he had an audience that was at least semi-magnetized and just attentive enough to make his choices feel less like the product of anxiety at being ignored and more like eagerness to present every facet of himself without hesitation.
Sampha ended his set with “Blood on Me,” once again throwing himself fully into a passionate performance that, in slightly different circumstances, would be notable for the level of charisma displayed but here made him seem more like a tragic hero trying to prove his worth one last time when it’s all too late.
Sampha exited the stage less to fanfare than to murmurs among the audience asking excitedly who exactly he was — a positive and well-intentioned reaction for sure, but one that served too little too late and seemed above all just to add insult to injury.
When Sampha’s giant glowing half-moon was pulled off the stage soon after he exited, more excited murmuring erupted among the audience than the sum of what had existed during the entirety of his performance. It was the set piece that tied the show together and that tragically stole the show.