Ben Howard Live Review at The Fillmore

10/11/2012

Ben started writing music as a child and originally planned to be a journalist, only to decide at age 21 to become a full time musician. Good decision. His short self-biography reads, “I travel lots, surf when I can, probably drink too much, definitely think too much, and at 22 (he’s now 25) still make irrational choices.” His distinctly delicate voice is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or David Grey; his distinguished instrumental behavior reveals his odd ways of holding various types of guitars. Following thorough growth of his reputation at small local venues in the UK , he eventually signed with Island Records to release his first formal album, Every Kingdom, on Oct. 3, 2011. The record can lull listeners to sleep (in a gratifying manner) and many of the songs sound completely the same, however Ben’s performance in front of a live audience has the power to invigorate the crowd with so much life, ameliorating his music.

Marcus Foster, the opener and another Brit guitarist, comfortably entertained the crowd using much more electric than acoustic. He felt unafraid to chat up the crowd and shout random audible commands, while performing with an accompanying pianist. Following his conclusion and the brief stage re-arrangement, the anxious and buzzing room darkened with minimal overhead lighting bouncing off the glistening crystal chandeliers above the stage. A large circle moon-shaped served as the background for the four musicians, as Howard shared the stage with a brunette female vocalist/cello player, a backup guitarist/vocalist and a drummer that acted as an occasionally guitarist and backup vocalist as well.

Underneath his long, blonde and wavy hair, Ben began the evening with an electric guitar, put it away shortly thereafter, only to have it return again for the finale. Acoustic is his primary style. (His current discography is small since he is both new to the professional scene and only has one full album, but the idea of more electric guitar from him could be appealing.) Early on, he politely asked that nobody in the crowd should request his cover of “Call Me Maybe,” which was later ignored. Gently serenading the captive audience in a borderline melancholy tone, his dramatic set featured frequent tempo shifts that occurred multiple times within the same song, adding almost theatrical effects to his emotive transitions and austere lyrics. He interacted with the crowd with the familiar, “I say this, you say that” routine, while the overhead mood lighting alternated between blue and white. These oscillations proved to be a stimulating experience: when he sang, the blue lights descended on Howard, and then he pointed to the faithful like a conductor, the light following his direction blasted the audience in white.

Guitar switching took place between what felt like every song, clearly a bit of an exaggeration, as well as quite a few variations in unique hand grips to play each guitar. All of his songs have simple titles, but many of them also include powerful, poetic lyrics. “Old Pine” features ones of his most pleasing melodies and a metaphysical chorus, “Smoke in my lungs, or the echoed stone / careless and young, free as the birds that fly / with weightless souls now.”

Many avid fans sang along to a majority of the songs, despite the frequent high-pitched notes. This activity does not feel as awkward when a good portion of the crowd participates as well, no matter how terrible the voice. Howard delivered his commentary with a heavy British accent that sometimes made his chatter hard to understand, but his level of enthusiasm during the performance was consistently evident: once conducting the drummer out of excitement as if he too were smashing the cymbal. The musicians thankfully and politely obliged with an encore, concluding the evening’s entertainment with a six person group (they brought on the opening act) bow as if they had completed a theatrical performance. Given that the moment represented the official ending of Ben Howard’s first ever (and successful) U.S. tour, the gracious behavior and thespian analogy both seem very fitting.