Ben Howard is currently rambling around on a sold-out tour of the UK.
In support of his debut album Every Kingdom, which charted at no. 7 last week, the Devonshire lad roamed into Manchester on Thursday, with the fair Lucy Rose as support.
Starting the evening off, Rose and one accompanying guitarist take to the stage. First things first, her voice is amazing. It’s not too powerful, although she lets you know it can be with a couple of hints every now and then. It’s the kind of voice that makes you forget about everything else – if this was an American sitcom, I would meet the eyes of ‘that girl’ across the room and everything else would fade out. (For those wondering, in this instance, ‘that girl’ looks remarkably like Rose herself).
Mid-way through the set is the new single Scar – Rose’s stage partner replaces his guitar with a keyboard and the song is already better thanks to a bit of variety in sound. Don’t get me wrong, the songs are… nice. But if it wasn’t for Rose’s reserved yet compelling performance of them, they would go by largely unnoticed. However, given that she didn’t have her regular full-strength backing band supporting her, she can be forgiven!
Rose clearly saves the best till last, launching into Bikes, which even includes a bit of audience participation – getting the audience to scream back at her, with surprisingly good results. Especially considering the undeservedly tepid response she’s had for the rest of the set.
Half an hour later, Ben Howard’s first song is largely acapella – only really accompanied by some hurried guitar tapping. It’s a bold move to start a gig in this fashion but it certainly grabs the audience’s attention.
After, he apologises for the intense start to the evening. But really, that feeling never quite goes away. Not that this is in anyway a bad thing, in fact, it’s one of the best qualities of Howard’s act. It does sometimes hinder him, however, as the first two songs are performed with record-like precision. But next up is Old Pine, and it’s heart-warming to see Howard so obviously lifted and humbled by the fact that people know his songs and are willing to sing them back at him – the atmosphere shoots up a notch or three as people whoop and cheer post-chorusm and suddenly, this feels like a live gig.
Howard takes his time between songs. Allowing the audience to relax a little before he slips into a rendition of Gracious. This is a trick he repeats several times throughout the night, allowing the crowd to lose focus but then grabbing them again as soon as he starts playing. And especially when he starts singing, the voice so full of emotion but not by any stretch of the imagination weak. In fact, it’s incredibly robust as shown when he withdraws from the microphone to hit some pronounced, raw notes that, should he sing them too close to the mic, would surely make our heads explode.
After a small lull in tempo, The Fear brings things back to full pace. This track probably best displays Howard’s awesome skill as a guitarist in general as he hammers his guitar into submission screaming ‘I will become what I deserve’ like he’s really got a point to prove. To be fair, by this point in the set, he has absolutely nothing to prove to the appreciative crowd.
The fact that pretty much every song builds, at almost exactly 7/8s of the way through, to a double barrelled, fully-loaded crescendo can get predictable and, to be honest, be a bit exhausting. But that doesn’t really take too much away from what is basically a quality show.
The Wolves quickly follows to round off the set. This song encapsulates everything that’s been good about Howard’s show, and in fact the whole gig. Voice, band, audience participation (I’ve never said or sung the word love so many times in my life), musical skill, and most of all, passion. What follows is something pleasantly surprising… An audience requested- rather than performer forced- encore. To be fair, there’s never any doubt that Howard and co are coming back out, but it’s nice to think that they’re actually wanted.
A stunning and intense version of Bones, followed by the excitable Move Like You Want round of the show in raucous fashion, And as he leaves the stage, we all go home wishing Ben Howard was our best mate.