tue 27/02/2024

Ben Howard, Royal Festival Hall review - authentic and reassuring | reviews, news & interviews

Ben Howard, Royal Festival Hall review - authentic and reassuring

Ben Howard, Royal Festival Hall review - authentic and reassuring

An intimate evening of internalised music

Ben Howard is a man of very few words, unless of course, there’s a guitar accompanying them.

These are his first shows since the start of lockdown but all he says about that is “thanks for coming out this evening”. Hobbling onto the stage with his foot in a cast, he gets straight into it, opening with “Follies Fixture” – the title track of his most recent studio album. Singing from a comfy looking velvet armchair, lamps flicker around the stage and incense burns atop amps while glitchy projections of Howard's face, sketches and wildflowers fill the back screen.

Ben Howard performing at the Royal Festival HallThe set rushes through Collections from the Whiteout, although the songs sound quite different in this cosy, intimate setting. I wasn’t sure if all the heavy production values of Whiteout (co-created by The National’s Aaron Dressner) would get in the way, but Howard’s folksy story songs come alive in the Royal Festival Hall, with the characters of “Crowhurst’s Meme” and “Far Out” realised in a really authentic way. Each acoustic word of “Rookery” is clear and nuanced, and there is a return to the sweet, fragile, slightly melancholy voice we are accustomed to.

It’s reassuring to see the singer curled like a fern over his guitar, singing about the countryside, vivid scenes and the peculiar characters he has created. Improvisational noodling and repetitions appear, with lyrics that weren’t standout on the studio album becoming stark and glistening. In “Rumble Strip” the lines “I heard your voice / Somewhere between dark and dawning / Between moon shadow and morning / I heard your voice” are like diamonds amidst the rubble as he sings so intently, to no one – not even to the audience, coiled as he is around his music. Similarly, in “Metaphysical Incantations” he’s dialled down the heavy electro production and turned up the tinkering, emphasising the line “tell her to come and visit me”; “Sage That She Was Burning” is way more mellow and brooding than the progressive jazz vibe of the album.

The audience try to climb like cats underneath his arms, headbutting their way into his insular experience, calling out “We love you Ben!” alongside desperate cries of “What happened to your foot?!” He dodges the question with a glib “forgive me for any pedal issues”, says, “I’ll figure it out”.

The energy shifts gear with “I Forget Where We Were” from his second album as the band fully relax into their comfort zone and the audience descend into raptures. Howard favourite “The Wolves” gives rise to an auditorium call of “Where you been hiding lately?” as rhythmic claps roll like a wave from the back of the hall.

In the encore of “Finders Keepers” I can hardly understand a word, it’s as if Ben’s internal world has collapsed in on itself like a creative black hole. But while at times it’s hard to recognise elements of songs we might feel we know, this is what makes the live experience so beautiful, so genuine – it comes from an entirely different and much more organic place. There’s a lot to be said for letting the music speak for itself.

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