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Sampha casts soulful spell over sold-out First Avenue crowd

Sampha performed with support from Treanne and Ruthven on Saturday, April 6 at First Avenue.
Sampha performed with support from Treanne and Ruthven on Saturday, April 6 at First Avenue.Sara Fish for MPR

by Natalia Mendez and Sara Fish

April 08, 2024

British singer, songwriter, producer, and musician Sampha’s breezy, drifting vocals and soulful, experimental R&B is delightful recorded. But when experienced live, the impact of his work is richer and more resonant. It gives the audience the feeling of being inside his music. After a bit, the sold-out crowd filled First Avenue’s mainroom Saturday night, with half of the set showcasing Sampha’s 2023 release, Lahai, named after the performer’s middle name. 

Sampha has worked with Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Kanye West, and Drake, but his breathtaking solo recordings are in a class of their own. His ruminative lyrics, sprawling compositions, and digital embellishments accompany his emotionally tactile piano playing. Openers Treanne and Ruthven were the ideal accompaniments to match Sampha’s visceral energy.

Treanne performing on stage.
Treanne. Sampha performed with support from Treanne and Ruthven on Saturday, April 6 at First Avenue.
Sara Fish for MPR

The 21-year-old Treanne appeared alone onstage in a light denim outfit with pointed patent leather slings and wielding a red electric guitar. She flowed through five songs in a too-short 15-minute set, including a few from her upcoming May release, 20/20. Her vocals were sleek and silken while she accompanied herself wistfully on guitar. After two songs, she switched to sitting at a keyboard. Her stripped-down sound matched the naked vulnerability of her lyrics about navigating the universally relatable growing pains of love as a young adult. “Through all the pain, you’re helping me evolve, but let me go,” she sang about the end of a fruitless relationship and the pitfalls and hollowness of hookup culture, “Sharing my body with you, you don’t want nothing else. Learning I can’t expect more from somebody else … Sharing my body, losing my mind.” The raw honesty of her work had all of us enraptured.

Ruthven. Sampha performed with support from Treanne and Ruthven on Saturday, April 6 at First Avenue.
Sara Fish for MPR

Similarly, South London hailing keyboardist Ruthven was a wonderfully unexpected addition to the bill. He mesmerized the crowd with a brief set that showed off his Prince-esque falsetto and mastery of his futuristic funk, poppy R&B, and explosive electronic sounds. A crack of thunder and heavy, tingly rain sounds filled the mainroom after he performed a song with tinkling keys and high, airy, looped vocals. Another, “Hypothalamus,” featured a warped and bubbly beat with sharp metallic clangs balanced by thudding drumbeats and energetic, triumphant piano. His use of effects gave a preview for the crashing, enveloping sound Sampha had prepared. (Ruthven would later join Sampha’s band onstage.)

Between sets, the chatty crowd buzzed with anticipation. Just as the lights were dimming, it seemed a bit too much for one crowd member, who passed out. They received medical attention as the band walked onto the stage outfitted with three drum kits and no less than five keyboards. Sampha took his place at the top of an elevated platform, and the five-piece launched into a set that took us all soaring into ethereal planes.

Kicking off with “Plastic 100°C,” things got eerie with the dry piddle of a snare drum, tinkling harp, and ghostly vocals in the background. Sampha spun in a circle, waving hands and shaking hips as a layered wall of sound blasted the bouncing, sold-out crowd. Samba-style drums added a sense of urgency while he pushed his voice, and backup singers chanted, adding mysticism to the moment.

Sampha dancing on stage
Sampha performed with support from Treanne and Ruthven on Saturday, April 6 at First Avenue.
Sara Fish for MPR

“Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s  Dream)” felt like a fever dream. Breakbeats rang out while a dense arrangement of arpeggiated piano and blipping synths zipped through our ears. The energized Sampha had the crowd under his spell, rocking their bodies and leading with their torsos. Funkier “Dancing Circles” had Sampha leaning over and touching their hands. As the bass thrummed and cymbals hit, Sampha's falsetto soared like the birds personified in the lyrics. It was an auditory painting of the dizzying madness of lost love.

The highlights of the night were reminders of the unique magic of a live show. For example, the recorded version of “Satellite Business” is only a minute and 25 seconds long. The version we got had the same piano up front, but the sonic textures on the album were amplified until we could feel the drums and bass clattering in our bones. In person, the ping-ponging electronic tones of the recording felt like shooting stars whooshing past. It presented itself like an exploded diagram of the song as layered harmonies drew it out. Later, the band played a seamless medley of three songs he collaborated on with other performers: Kendrick Lamar’s “Father Time,” Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo,” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.” 

One of the more visually arresting parts of the night was “Without.” All five performers gathered around one of the smaller drum kits and played together. Playing off the lyrics, they pounded like an anxious heart wrapped up in the present, dreading the inevitable end of a relationship. The crowd bounced along, entranced, waving their arms and singing along.

A moment that had some women near me crying and wishing they had more tissues was “Sprit 2.0.” The already beautifully haunting arpeggiated track was made even more special when Sampha snuck in a few lines from Massive Attack’s sensual hit, “Teardrop.” Similarly, the purity and vulnerability of his solo performance of “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” called back to the piano in his mother’s house. We could experience his wonder and love for an instrument that has brought him success, an outlet for his experiences, and a way to connect with crowds like ours. 

While many of us seek out live shows to take a break from the every day, few allow us to be wholly present. This crowd was continuously enraptured with tears of joy, big emotion, and vulnerability across the room. This blasting hurricane of purifying sound left us feeling full, empty, and whole simultaneously, completely wrung out from the night’s transformative musical performance. 

Setlist (from April 4)

Plastic 100°C

Satellite Business 


Inclination Compass (Tenderness)


Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream) 

Spirit 2.0

Too Much

(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano 

Dancing Circles
Father Time/Saint Pablo/Don’t Touch My Hair

Can’t Go Back

Blood on Me


Can’t Get Close