It's been many a moon since this Clasher saw Ben Howard strut his musical wares in the pubs of Cornwall. A humble presence who could play guitar with a thousand times more precision then many other bedroom poets, it's good to now see that the wider world has taken notice too. A sell-out tour and signing to Island has led to this: three sold-out nights at the O2 Academy, Brixton, and a staggering amount of screaming.
First, however, is American singer-songwriter Willy Mason, a great choice of support whose laid back blues and country numbers help attendees ease into the evening. 'Oxygen' gets huge cheers while other quieter numbers are lost in a roar of banal conversation. An unfortunately common fate of being support, but we presume the chatter will die down soon. A short break is taken and a strange instrumental is blasted out before Ben Howard and cohorts appear accompanied by an ear-bleeding level of screeches. It's clear the crowd is leaning towards a female-heavy demographic, and there is a tangible air of Beatlemania going down. Things have gone well for this man.
The band explodes into action, Howard a far greater prospect in a live setting than on record. The sheer intensity of his guitar playing is jaw-dropping and made more impressive by the fact that over half of the set is played on an acoustic guitar. At this early stage in his career nearly all of his material is played, the plus being no favorite or roof raising single is missed. 'Only Love' and 'The Fear' go down particularly well, Howard's voice a nice mix of heartbreaking angst and mumbled soul. Still, between charming lyrics such as "Give me shelter or show me heart" we hear "Susan wants us to go to Marrakech next spring."
Clash puts it down to bad choice of standing area and - with other annoyed parties - move gradually away, to be treated with a conversation on the pros and cons of vodka and cranberry. With horror we realise it's unescapable. While the man on stage bares his soul during 'Old Pine', hundreds, nay, thousands conduct entire conversations throughout. Every delicate moment, every pinched harmonic is lost in a sea of natter. Even the sincere amongst the crowd ruin things by screaming uncontrollably during the song's sadder moments.
Ignoring this unprecedented and truly baffling display of rudeness (to both artists and fans) 'Keep Your Head Up' shines through, a true sing along moment bringing huge wafts of countryside nostalgia and ending in a truly awesome crescendo. Top grade performance over, and Ben returns for a couple of acoustic encores, giving the newer EP 'The Burgh Island' an airing, and brings the band back for the very last number. "When I first started playing I used to be able to talk to people," says Ben, "now it's a bit hard, look at the size of this place!" Trust us Ben, engaging the crowd in conversation may not have been a success. A bitter-sweet night for many, a world class performance from the star.
Words Sam Walker-Smart
Photos by Natalie Seery