But while his lyrics are sometimes fixed like a telescope on the skies and certain sonic accoutrements evoke science fiction soundscapes, Sampha spent his set focused on earthly concerns, finding transcendence through his voice and the power of percussion.
It was Sampha’s voice — soulful and soothing, wounded and vulnerable — that first caught listeners’ attention over a decade ago, first as a “Who is this!?” discovery on the boundary-pushing debut of English electronic music producer SBTRKT, then as a sample that outshined the song on Drake’s album “Nothing Was the Same.”
In concert, the singer’s instrument is as finely tuned as it is on record, whether it be 2017’s Mercury Prize-winning “Process” or the just-released “Lahai,” with his distinct tone and phrasing intact. While the capacity crowd let out cheers for some of his particularly stunning vibrato-full runs, the D.C. audience was uncharacteristically hushed and respectful of the pauses and silences in his music. But more so than on his headphone-ready albums, the reverberations of percussion — jittery, clattering, heartbeat-skipping and, at one point, taking the form of a drum circle — turned bodies into flesh-and-bone pinball machines.
As those beats shifted, warped and crescendoed, Sampha occasionally felt compelled to leave his perch and dance across the stage. The audience, packed in elbow-to-elbow, had to suffice with tiny two-steps and head bobbing. No matter: As he sang on a cover of Roy Davis Jr. and Peven Everett’s “Gabriel,” “Dancing soon became a way to communicate/ … Feel the music deep in your soul.”
It’s the soul, not the corpus, where Sampha’s music hits hardest. His vocals and lyrics found life-affirming beauty amid the cacophony, as he interrogated “sour and strained” relationships and reminisced over photos on phone screens. Throughout, he remained a seeker trying to rely on instinct rather than intellect: acknowledging the places and people that he can’t go back to while embracing the forces of nature — light, love, spirit, faith — that he maintains will catch him, and us, in the end.
“This energy we exchange is very special,” the mostly reserved musician said before ending his set. “My heart is full.”
He soon returned for a solo encore of “Happens,” his fingers a whirlwind on the keys. “I don’t have the answers, so I won’t tell you lies,” he sang. “… I found my love and I don’t want to lose it again.”