Ben Howard strips back the Echo Arena where Getintothis‘ Paul Riley sees him give a surprisingly intimate performance.
Ben Howard is a young British singer songwriter who has been releasing material since 2008. Signing to Island Records in 2011, his debut album featured a selection of tracks from previous independent EP releases as well as some new material.
Every Kingdom benefited from the long gestation period; it is a powerful and impressive debut, predominately acoustic guitar-led tracks with an emphasis on intricate fingerpicking and percussive guitar styles. The album was well-received by critics and fans alike, earning him Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello Award nominations for Album of the Year. This was followed by The Burgh Island EP which showed a development in the music, becoming darker and more atmospheric, incorporating reverby electric guitars and a much more mature sound, which brings us to the latest tour in support of I Forget Where We Were.
This latest release shows a development in Howard’s music, a further maturation and increasing confidence which invites repeated listens. Both live and on record, he shows fantastic ability in terms of his range of guitar techniques, his vocal delivery and in the strength of his songwriting and arrangement – and these strengths are the key to his success.
The slice of the music world that covers such vague areas as ‘white bloke with an acoustic’, ‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘folk’ is so overpopulated with often forgettable and interchangeable faces that it is difficult for artists to become successful while keeping control of their own artistic development and identity.
This is particularly true when an artist reaches the level of the big stadium tours. Not many musicians can hold a several thousand-strong audience with their voice and a guitar. Hence, the show becomes a full-band affair, and often the individuality of the artist is lost, or the music becomes more mainstream and radio-friendly.
Howard has built his own five piece band, including long-time collaborators Chris Bond (multi-instrumentalist and producer of Every Kingdom and The Burgh Island EP) and India Bourne (Cello/Bass/Guitar/Vox). This close relationship comes across in the music, as the band are a perfect complement to the songs. Often tastefully restrained, providing a counterweight to Howard’s vocal and guitar rather than competing with it, they also give a greater level of dynamics and more detail to sweeping instrumental passages which only serves to showcase the music at a higher level.
From the opening few bars of Am I In Your Light?, the brooding and compelling performance builds an atmosphere of intimacy that many bigger artists would struggle to create in such a large space. Perhaps an unusual track to open, from a musical perspective as well as for the fact that it is an extra track on the vinyl edition of I Forget… it nevertheless casts a spell over the crowd that lasts for the majority of the show.
Highlights included a blistering full-band incarnation of Rivers in Your Mouth finishing with a wailing lead guitar outro, and an utterly beautiful cover of Sharon van Etten’s Every Time the Sun Comes Up. Songs were not just regurgitated, carbon copy, from the records; the whole performance was impressive as an experience outside of the versions the crowd is familiar with (a commendable hallmark of artists Ben may aspire to such as Ryan Adams andDylan).
As if in answer to our concerns about whether a singer-songwriter can pull off a show of this size, the encore began with crowd favourite Old Pine, performed solo to complex fingerpicking, before The Wolves, this time with a minimal backing from the band. He looked perfectly comfortable on his own, and played with such confidence and feeling that the Echo felt, for a few minutes, cosy.
He is not just a singer-songwriter, but onstage presents as an artist who is immersed in his music. A brilliant performer, he is convincing and compelling. While some of the offerings from the new album such as Conrad and All Is Now Harmed were a little pedestrian and edging dangerously towards acoustic rock (bleugh), in the main this was an extremely impressive showing from the 27 year old.
It is not the most ground-breaking music, but it is recognisably Ben Howard, it is very good, and we hope it will only get better as his career continues to develop.