Tampa Bay's best concerts of 2015, Part 5: Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, the Weeknd and more
(Through the end of the year on Soundcheck, our contributors are looking back at the best local concerts of 2015. Today: Tampa Bay Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne and designers Brittany Volk and Tara McCarty).
Lots of people go to concerts, right? So we opened the door to the Features staff of the Tampa Bay Times, asking them to share their favorite concert experiences of the year. Several jumped at the chance. Here’s what they had to say.
Sam Smith (July 21, Amalie Arena): The moment his voice seeped into the darkness of the arena, I got goosebumps. The very sound made me want to lean forward in my seat, lock eyes on his position on stage and never look away, like the best, most humble and genuinely happy car crash to ever happen. I was sharing the experience with thousands of other people, but I could have been dueting with Smith in his living room, it felt so intimate. My heart felt every feeling he alluded to in his lyrics — from the sadness of having it broken (Lay Me Down) to feeling like it might burst from joy (his cover of the classic Ain’t No Mountain High Enough). Highlight: I couldn’t help falling in love with his mash up of his song Not In That Way and Elvis’ Can’t Help Falling In Love.
Ed Sheeran/Christina Perri (Sept. 10, Amalie Arena): After seeing Ed Sheeran open for Taylor Swift in 2013, I vowed to see him the next time he came to the area. I am always impressed by the simplicity of his setup (he uses a looper to combine his instruments and random sounds with his voice) and just the sheer(an) variety of talent he showcases. He can rap, he can sing, he plays his guitar, and the harder and faster he strums, the more unbelievable the energy becomes. He’s remarkably emphatic in cargo shorts and a T-shirt. Highlight: Always You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, but especially how he weaved in Drake’s Know Yourself.
Christina Perri had been on my list of artists to see for years, and since I missed her stop at State Theatre in 2014, I was ecstatic to find out she was opening for Sheeran. Perri is an underrated musician and definitely not what I expected live. She’s more fluttery than Jar of Hearts would lead anyone to believe. As she spun around on stage, her voice floating through the Amalie atmosphere, I was entranced. Highlight: When she and Sheeran joined forces on Perri’s Be My Forever, which is too cute.
Taylor Swift/Alessia Cara/Idina Menzel (Oct. 31, Raymond James Stadium): Everyone knows Taylor Swift had a gargantuan year. Her album 1989 launched her beyond her curly-haired, country-lovin’, good girl reputation and into mega-pop star status. Along with 57,000 fans, I sang every word to every song with stars in my eyes.
Like Christina Perri, the first time I heard Alessia Cara, I knew I wanted to see her live. When she stepped out as Taylor’s first surprise guest, all I could say was “Shut up. OMG.” over and over. She’s definitely an artist I’ll be watching and would love to see her in a smaller venue soon.
And I’ll be honest: I had zero interest in seeing Idina Menzel when she came to Ruth Eckerd Hall this summer. But a few days after her surprise appearance with Taylor Swift, I found myself trying to explain to a friend why that moment of them singing Let It Go was so incredible. I knew that I had witnessed a rare moment in musical history. To be in the presence of two such hugely popular performers singing a song known the world over, on Halloween, on the last night of Taylor’s North American tour, with Taylor dressed as Olaf the snowman, is to be part of something that will never happen again. Ever. And that’s enormous.
Highlight: When Swift walked along her elevating catwalk above the crowd and sang, with just her guitar, a song called Fifteen, a song she wrote 10 years prior about being a teenager in high school and thinking you know everything. Also (at the time) 25, I was completely absorbed in the moment, reflecting on who I was at 15 and who I am now. All I can say is, I didn’t see that bit of reflection coming amid all the hype for power-pop tracks like Blank Space and Bad Blood.
Murs (Nov. 1, Crowbar): Experiencing a sold-out stadium concert one night, and a small, grimy rap show the next, was interesting. I looked, but was unsuccessful in finding anyone at the latter who also attended both. It was my fourth time seeing Murs, who has been in the industry since the mid-’90 and he’s always gracious, full of energy and very engaging with his fans. My favorite tracks of his tell stories (Remember 2 Forget) or talk about controversial topics (Animal Style). Tour after tour, even after he drops a new album, he still plays the crowd favorites, though I was a little disappointed he left Hip Hop and Love off this round’s setlist. Highlight: I always hold my breath for Break Up (The OJ Song).
JoJo (Dec. 10, State Theatre): I wasn’t sure what to expect from JoJo, since I hadn’t heard much of her in years, yet was intrigued that she was still touring. If the crowd was a little scattered across the age, race and gender spectrums (surprisingly a little heavy on the middle-aged dad group), the music was as timeless as anything JoJo. She was very sweet-spoken, though forward in her Shakira-like hip shakes and slow winds. I rediscovered the fact that she was only 12 when she recorded Leave (Get Out), a song about giving the boot to a cheating significant other, a topic she told fans she obviously knew nothing about at the time. She is one powerhouse of a singer, and while her name hasn’t been on the charts lately (mostly thanks to record label drama), I could see her coming back in full force. Highlight: When she played her reply to Drake’s Marvin’s Room, I about died. That’s all I wanted from that night.
The Weeknd (Dec. 17, Amalie Arena): Electrically gratifying. During my third round with Abel, I appreciated that he played a large portion of older favorites from his mixtapes. It was apparent just how many new fans he gained this year when many did not sing those older lyrics, though no song went undanced. It was amazing seeing The Weeknd perform for the second time in Tampa, the first in 2013 at the Straz and now at Amalie Arena. As a longtime fan, there will always be a special place in my heart for Trilogy and his mixtapes, and I wish I had cherished more seeing him at the smaller venue. That being said, he sure knows how to keep the party going. Every song was another reason to throw your arms into the air and no matter how big his shows get, I hope that never changes. Highlight: Always Crew Love, and his aamazing combination of D.D. and In the Night, but I also looked forward to The Hills, and was not disappointed (though, a little warm from the fire).
— Tara McCarty
Lady Antebellum/Hunter Hayes/Sam Hunt (Sept. 5, MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre): There was a moment when I turned to my friend and mouthed “OMG! IS THIS HAPPENING?!” and we both stomped our boots and squealed with glee. Hilary Scott of Lady Antebellum had just belted out Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide and now was about to sing Shania Twain’s Any Man of Mine. It’s my favorite karaoke song and I didn’t think I could get any more turnt. That is, until Sam Hunt and Hunter Hayes joined Lady A on stage to slay Aerosmith’s Walk This Way. From Hunt’s sexy melodies and Hayes’ dorky beefcake croons to Lady A’s heart-stopping musical chemistry, it was a wild country Labor Day dance party at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.
— Brittany Volk
Florida Orchestra (Oct. 2, Straz Center): I love how fancy it makes me sound to say that my favorite concert of the year was the debut of Michael Francis as music director of the Florida Orchestra. The Oct. 2 Masterworks concert featured a dazzling pianist on Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 and 86 musicians parading Aaron Copland’s iconic American Symphony No. 3.
It’s because I’m more of a Green Day kind of gal that this show ended up being my favorite, thanks to the mini music appreciation class from Professor Francis.
Like all of this season’s Masterworks concerts, if you arrive early, you get to hear a talk with inside stories about the music and the composers. Francis is a charming speaker, and when he got wound up in describing Copland’s music he was riveting. He described how the first movement embodies an internal clash with trombones, “almost like the heartbeat of the soul of the nation.”
With his vivid descriptions in my head, I had a clear vision as the music played of the wide American plain, the tick-tock of the Industrial Revolution, the tragedy of war and the post-war optimism of Fanfare for the Common Man.
He also prepared us for Rachmaninoff and what pianists call the Mount Everest of concertos. Guest pianist Valentina Lisitsa, a classical star of YouTube, delivered the complex performance needed, her fingers sprinting down the keys with blinding speed.
Francis is only the fourth in the orchestra’s 48-year history, but this British import clearly has the soul of a teacher and a broad democratic view of music’s appeal. Previous directors have viewed their role as curators of the best in classical music, not to be popular.
Francis, with his many pops shows on the season’s calendar, has taken his orchestra to shopping malls and hospitals and clearly plans on giving the common man more than a little fanfare in Tampa Bay.
— Sharon Kennedy Wynne