Live Review: Ben Howard, Rock City (23/11/12)

Ben Howard’s voice is raw, broken and beautiful. With just him and his band on stage, his Nottingham gig was rightly all about the music. In the dark packed room of a transformed Rock City, his John Martyn and Joni Mitchel inspired stripped back beach melodies felt anthemic.

Since his dark lyrics are so full of natural imagery played over earthly acoustic guitar riffs, it seemed almost doubtful that they would translate to a sticky floored city bar, but at the first sound of ‘Keep your head up’ that idea was dispelled. The crowd of damp hipsters and assorted folk lovers lost their collective cool, as they jumped up and down and sung every word right back to him.

Ben himself was nothing less than what you’d expect from the man whose record ‘Every Kingdom’ is the soundtrack to every bluesy summer day and hot summer night since its release . The West London born, Devon-raised singer was lovably humble; he spoke when he had something to say and didn’t when he hadn’t. He thanked everyone for braving the torrential rain, excused himself for his “miserable” music and told us about celebrating, support act, Willy Mason’s birthday with a notorious dirty pint just a few nights before. Mason’s honey-voiced blues established the growling tone for the evening, sliding easily from one song to the other with the sort of melodies that made you think of dusty backwater bars and whiskey straight from the bottle. With the definite highlight being the atmospheric soaring ‘Gold under the ground’.

You can judge some people on the way they treat those around them, and it says a lot that Ben made a huge deal of introducing his long term band mates, India Bourne and Chris Bond. Their obvious friendship made for a flawless and sincere performance and there was something very sweet about watching them all take a bow together, arm in arm at the end of the gig. There’s no other way to say it, Ben Howard seems like a genuinely nice guy. Gasp.

It might appear a little bold to claim that it was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever heard, but it would be the truth. His voice filled the room, the distinctive rasp even more enchanting and powerful than the album lets on. The set lasted a mammoth one hour and forty five minute, but each song was played so earnestly and so well that it could have been fifteen minutes. It was a fans’ dream. From the more melancholy ‘Black Flies’ and ‘Every Kingdom’ to the much adored ‘The Wolves’ and ‘Old Pine’, the music was ceaseless.  Though the hauntingly lovely new tracks ‘Esmeralda’ and ‘Oats in the Water’ were received with rapturous applause, it was ‘Only Love’ that stole the show. He got the crowd to sing back ‘love love love’ until we were dancing and the lyrics became evangelical.

It’s getting rarer to go to a gig where it is all about the music, but Ben gave a show that was just that. Each song lasted twice as long as they normally do since the instrumentals seemed to take on a life of their own. The intros and outros were almost extended into songs of their own and though this could easily fall into self-indulgence; they only added to the crowd’s excitement and gave that special ‘live’ feel that you go to gigs looking for: the feeling that you are getting something raw and special and real that only exists in that moment. Ben Howard’s gig delivered in every respect, giving a show that was as heartbreakingly good to listen to as it was for just one night to be a part of as well.

Phoebe Harkin

…Phoebe has been listening to The Paper Kites – Bloom…


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