In my mind, Ben Howard’s music has long evoked the seasons – warm summer’s eves on his debut album before sophomore effort, 'I Forget We Were', a far more autumnal affair that saw him strike out with a moodier electric sound that seemed to better frame what had often been lyrics of a darker sensibility. On his new release, 'Noonday Dream', he seems to have fully settled in for the winter, albeit perhaps somewhere in Central America, where the sun falls early and the night’s texture is thick with the ocean’s fragrance and rife for contemplation.
A fair few seasons have passed since Howard and his band last graced a stage to perform music under his name – over three years’ worth - and most of tonight’s crowd seem to appreciate the gravity of what they are about to experience. A handful of songs have so far been released ahead of 'Noonday Dream’s drop on June 1st, so tonight Lisbon, the first stop on a fairly selective world tour, will be the first audience to experience the full album.
After some online speculation of a large-scale indie act joining the tour, Ryan Gustafson aka. The Dead Tongues kicks the night off with mellow aplomb. Although musically Gustafson’s solo Americana fingerpicking is more reminiscent of Howard’s own output circa 2010, on a deeper level, this choice of act makes perfect sense. Gustafson’s albums are written on self-explorative journeys across America in between tours with DJ Taylor and his sensibility and aims as an artist seem to echo with where Howard finds himself artistically at the moment. Gustafson’s sentiments and songs, particularly ‘Won’t Be Long’, resonate with an appreciative crowd, conveyed via a powerful voice that cuts through subtly inventive lilts of mandolin and acoustic guitar.
While Gustafson still wears his heart very much on his sleeve, the first hour or so of Howard’s set leaves Lisbon’s Coliseu shrouded in blissful, ambient mystery as they unravel the sonic delights of Noonday Dreamfor the first time to a backdrop of shifting, ethereal and distorted visuals. Early release singles, like ‘Nica Libres at Dusk’ and a pleasingly stripped back ‘Towing the Line’ already sound like classics and the hair-raising moments which Howard crafted during his folkier tenure are all the more effective within this new sound. His virtuosic band provide many of these moments, whether it be the introduction of an urgent break-beat in ‘The Defeat’ or a sudden effects-laden shudder on the guitar cutting through the pleasant hypnotism that these new songs induce.
Famed as a withdrawn and meditative performer, it's difficult to gauge whether or not the man in question is having a good time and simply taking it all in, or reluctantly doing as he must while sipping his rosé, until he breaks the ice with a modest apology at around the 50-minute mark, saying, “this is the first one back for a long time…we’re a little rusty”. The band then dives into old favourites ‘I Forget Where We Were’ and ‘Small Things’, as the crowd joins them wholeheartedly for the first time in a haunting set of choruses. After a brief pause, the band return for an encore that comprises a wild version of ‘The End of the Affair’ and gentle, almost nostalgic renditions of ‘Promise’ and ‘Conrad’, which again are amplified by the crowd’s gentle soprano.
Anyone with tickets to an upcoming show expecting a safe repeat of the classics may be disappointed by what is a highly experimental, post-rock set, but to those willing to leave the past behind, tonight leaves no doubt that Howard’s uncompromising vision is beginning to carve out an impressive multi-faceted legacy akin to the likes of Justin Vernon and John Martyn.
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'Noonday Dream' will be released on Friday (June 1st).
Words: Andy Gregory
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