Stateside, Ben Howard has kept a relatively low profile in the folk world since his appearance on the scene in 2008. However, the English singer-songwriter managed to fill Jannus Live this past Tues., Jan. 20.
Singer-songwriter Willy Mason opened the show. Accompanied by two other band mates, Mason – who was formerly signed to Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records — churned out several alt-country/folk tunes that failed to keep a good portion of the unusually chatty audience’s attention. With vocals that sound eerily similar to Caleb Followill circa 2004, Mason’s lyrics are Americana and simplistic, almost to a fault.
Being only vaguely familiar with Ben Howard’s music through his occasional appearance on my Pandora stations in college, I've never delved too deeply into his discography, which includes several EPs and two full length albums, the most recent 2014’s I Forget Where We Were.
Howard opened the show with “Conrad,” a track off of his most recent release. With only a beaming red ray of light behind his silhouette, Howard’s intricate electric guitar work was immediately enchanting. Combined with his lush vocals, the song was a breathtaking, ethereal opening to the set.
The title track off his 2014 LP has a perfect crescendo; beginning only with Howard’s sweeping vocal and electric guitar and eventually encompassing the rest of his band. Live, it showcased the full power of Howard’s voice and electric guitar riffs that sound like a forgotten track on Jeff Buckley’s Grace.
“Rivers in Your Mouth,” another face-paced tune, continued to showcase Howard’s prowess as a guitar player. His picking is very technical, but maintains an irresistible ambiance. The resulting sound is similar to the instrumentals of Tycho or Explosions in the Sky.
Taking a seat and switching to an acoustic guitar, Howard dived into “In Dreams,” during which he finger-picked his creaky guitar at an insane pace. The combination of his virtuosity on the guitar and the song’s dark, poetic vocals are reminiscent of some of Nick Drake’s revered work.
During “Small Things,” vertical beams of white light lined the stage, and Howard was rejoined by his band. Sonically, the eerie tune matched the stage production with its ambient, droning guitar and illustrated the sheer power of Howard’s band. I could feel every drumbeat in my bones.
The stage was flooded with warm pink and purple hues during “Time is Dancing.” The stage production, although quite simple, beautifully accompanied Howard throughout the entire set, the effect otherworldly and transportive.
One of the set's quieter songs, “End of the Affair,” a serene lyrical standout, prompted a group of rowdy British fellows to start shouting raucously at Howard and someone next to me wondered aloud, “Is Ben Howard turn-up music for Brits?”
Before “She Treats Me Well,” Howard announced that he had begun drinking tequila, and would start to play some “jollier songs.”
Unlike many of the singer-songwriters that Howard gets lumped in with, his guitar skills often overshadowed his singing. During “Everything,” he played his fretboard from top instead of holding the neck from underneath. Stylistically, Howard is a refreshingly uncommon player.
The later portion of the set included “Oats in the Water,” “Black Flies,” and “Fear.” Howard explained his disdain for exiting the stage before an encore, and launched directly into the last two songs, “All Harmed” and “Gracious.”
Live, Ben Howard totally defies the singer-songwriter pigeonhole. He brings an ethereal sound to the stage that creates a world that seems impossible not to get lost in.