It’s only appropriate that intimacy was the theme for a night out with Sampha. Johnny Brenda’s Tavern is discreet, holding all of the appearances of a run-of-the-mill bar, with a small performance space on the second floor. The mood was set with a selective playlist of muted electronic and rhythm and blues. As more audience members trickled in, the praise for the close-knit feel gave me a sense that we’re all invested in getting knee deep into our feels.

Sampha did not disappoint. The London-based artist appeared as discreetly as you might imagine. Sporting a black hoodie, he briskly walked through the door backstage. When he returned with his full band, he jumped headfirst into “Plastic 100ºC.”

His voice is so rife with such thick emotion that it’s easy to get lost in it. His piano strokes are hypnotic, jarring us loose with the idiosyncratic stutter, “Houston can, can, can you hear?” Deep blue lighting rendered him nearly invisible to any low-res camera. The audience had no choice but to be present with whatever pain we harnessed listening to his somber, sultry music.

“Timmy’s Prayer” introduced electricity into an otherwise analog opening. It would never leave us again. Sampha has a gorgeously creaky falsetto that peaks while he sings, “The sun sinks and you’re not there.” The rhythm section shifted into high gear, and polyrhythms rang out over Kelsey Lu’s melodic cello when Sampha pined, “I’m waiting cuz I fucked up!”

After exchanging pleasantries with the crowd, Sampha gave us a taste of some new music that we assuredly appreciated. If this performance was any indication of his forthcoming work, it’s sure to be a treat. He ratcheted up the genteel on a track called “Inconsistent Kisses,” which dovetailed nicely into the Dual track, “Can’t Get Close.” With a backtracking wail into the crowd, the blueness reappeared as Sampha’s vocals stretched from alto to soprano and back again. The record is one of his barest, and weighs heavy on the artist’s shoulders. His mannerisms are tightly closed in, echoing the sentiment that no matter how intimate this space allows us to be, we still are far away from each another.

The crooner continued this line with the banger that led to his international appeal, “Too Much.” But the highlight of the show was a new track called “Under” which convinced me that Sampha likes to dance a lot more than one might imagine. It featured his trademark repetitiveness, but the band’s predilection towards worldly electronica gave the song an energy that simply isn’t in his love songs. Even when Sampha descended into “Happens,” the crowd didn’t forget that energy, and sang right along with him. His ability to speak so frankly about repeated heartbreak created a sense of camaraderie. We swayed, reaching up with him, and singing, “She said I can’t let this happen, no I can’t let this happen again.” We believed it.

He climbed up to one last peak with an ultra-frenetic rendition of “Blood on Me.” The band filled the room with an aggressive tropical electronica that was absent from the studio recording. Buoyed by drum solos and Sampha’s magnetic pacing, the crowd erupted in song and physicality. Although the audience had been dancing since “Under,” this was the release we’d been waiting for. Sampha grabbed the mic and two-stepped as the crowd nodded rhythmically in approval. It took a while, but we had finally reached oneness.

At such close quarters, Sampha’s rise seems assured. He draws you close with his lyrical mystique while keeping you at a distance, then turns this completely on its head when he sped things up. His new album, whenever it lands, will showcase a Sampha we haven’t heard before: open, expressive, dancing. The crowd left that night with gratitude, thanking the stars he finally let us in.

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