Review: Ben Howard at O2 Academy Brixton, 18/01/19

It’s a tricky relationship to manage, that one between artist and audience during a live performance.

Some refer to an unwritten code, that in return for the performer giving it their best, the crowd will respond in kind; cheer when required, silent when needed.

But live music rarely cares for such intricate rules and guidelines, often forgotten in a mesh of sweat and noise and feedback and glee as both sides appreciate the music but also the intagibles – the atmosphere, the sense of belonging that is so often lost outside a music hall.

There is no danger of such a situation arising with Ben Howard.

This reviewer first stumbled upon the shaggy-haired Devon native as he played to a small crowd during a small, city music festival in Cardiff. A few months later he was back to play the larger Students’ Union hall. A year beyond that was a headline slot at the incomparable Green Man Festival in Wales, Ben somehow stretching his acoustic guitar and hushed vocals to fill every inch of the mid-Wales sky.

Through each of those sets the crowds grew and the easy, singalong tunes remained, mostly from 2012 debut album Every Kingdom.

Now, six years on from that last watch, the crowds remain but the songs have gone. A four-date headline run at O2 Academy in Brixton is surely a sign that your music career is in rude health?

Yet, for those in attendance hoping for a rekindling of the old magic, this was a new Ben Howard. As suggested by the giveaway title, the ‘Noonday Dream Tour’ has instead drawn heavily from that same album, the latest offering from Ben that actively turns away from the old favourites and explores entirely new genres and soundscapes.

Accompanied by a generous backing band of nine, Ben spends his time on stage cajoling and orchestrating stunning soundscapes, meandering through the entirety of the latest record and only allowing a one-track sojourn to that debut album, ‘Black Flies’ getting aired alongside two tracks from the second album.

Musically, it is an incredibly accomplished and technically stunning display – the lighting and audiovisual work is of the highest order and indicative of a man demanding the most thorough standards from all aspects of his work.

Yet it is perhaps that obsession with the music above the performance – it took 45 minutes for him to mumble a hello – that perhaps frustrated some. You’d find more atmosphere on the moon, but perhaps in this instance that isn’t the point. Ben has actively distanced himself from his old work and that is fine.

For those wanted his glory days, tune into Radio 2 on any given weekday or even better buy his original album.

Even in this transformational phase, Ben still proves his utter class as a musician, completely owning and excelling at this new direction. Long may it continue.

 

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