Every time that Jorja Smith has come to Chicago I’ve have been lucky enough to see her. Her Chicago debut at Schubas showed that she was an excellent performer with no ceiling, set to rise as far as she could want. Her showa few months later at Subterranean reaffirmed those thoughts as she packed the venue to a bursting point. Considering how great these performances were, I honestly couldn’t have predicted how much I ended up enjoying Smith’s performance at Thalia Hall this past Wednesday, let alone expect her opener Ama Lou to be as extraordinary as she was. The pair showed off all their talented for a sold out Thalia Hall, resulting in a magnificent show.
To say that Ama Lou’s short set was a revelation would be an understatement. Singing tracks from her recently released E.P. DDD, Lou seemed like a much older soul than her 19 years of age let on. Her songs circle around of love and and heartache while striving for something a little deeper as well. In fact, she has a lot in common with Jorja Smith. She was giving off the same vibes that I got from the first time I saw Smith perform, a mixture of chills and awe. Every passing note from Lou’s amazing voice was followed by a swell of confidence never relented. She ended her time picking up a guitar an sitting alone at the center stage, adding even more genuine prowess to her materful set.
Then the moment that I had been waiting for finally came. Jorja Smith came to the stage and stunned the crowd, immediately shifting the atmosphere. We suddenly went from air Thalia Hall’s Romanesque Revival/ Prague opera house inspiration to one of a jazz club. Her blue fringe outfit instantly stoked thoughts of flapper dresses of the twenties, while her blindingly white Nike Cortez firmly established her in the presnt. The hanging incandescent light bulbs and the color changing backdrop framed her and the full band so precisely, everything just fell into place as “Something in the Way” welcomed us to what would be a breathtaking performance.
“Teenage Fantasy” came earlier in the set than previous shows, a nice sign that fans have been garnering more knowledge of the rest of Smith’s catalog. “February 3rd”, still not officially released, now sounds like a familiar standard thanks to live recordings and having seen her before. Then older tracks like “Where Did I Go?” and “Blue Lights” still hit the highs that they did when first released. All of her songs have that sort of timeless quality, feeling fresh and enjoyable no matter how often, or how little, you’ve heard them. Her songs have become so well known among the crowd that you could here their soft voices sing along with Smith’s, never truly over powering her.
After a few songs I turned to my friend and said, “I wonder what covers she’ll play.” To my delight, it was everything I had seen her perform and more. After her track “Tomorrow” came the small channeling of Lauryn Hill with “Ready or Not”. Towards the latter half, Frank Ocean’s “Lost echoes through my ears and once again I almost missed the fact that it was cover as Smith truly makes it her own. Sandwiched right in the middle of the entire set, Smith completely surprised me with a full rendition of “No Scrubs”, sending everyone’s cellphones up into the air to record the moment.
She only spoke directly to the crowd a couple of times, explaining the origin of a song or simply to thank us, but ultimately she was focused on giving Thalia Hall wholly remarkable show. Every song just felt like important, like a once in a lifetime performance. Smith’s stage presence added to this grandiose feeling, looking utterly mesmerizing as she belted out her songs then dancing emphatically towards the end of her set. She was confident and commanding, letting her and the band’s craft take the spotlight.
Her encore came in the form of the heartbreakingly beautiful “Don’t Watch Me Cry”. This was exemplary song that showed off just how great she sounded in a venue multiple times the size of places she’s played in Chicago. Despite its gentle and almost timid presentation, it engulfed the venue and entrances its listeners. There was clearly one song that was missing from the set at the show’s end and crowd knew there was no chance it wouldn’t be played. As “On My Mind” sent everyone away in an ecstatic tizzy, I did everything I could to relish this moment. Jorja Smith will only be playing bigger and bigger venues and her skill will only get better and better, but the intimacy and beauty of Thalia Hall mixed so well with her performance, setting the bar impossibly high. Thankfully, I think Jorja Smith will likely surpass my expectations the next time she comes through Chicago and reset that bar like she did last week. .
All photos by Julian Ramirez