Sheer confidence through an impending tempest of raw emotion and vulnerability

Following in the wake of three sold-out nights at the O2 Academy Brixton, Ben Howard added one final show to bring his run of shows in London up to four subsequent nights. Even after three nights of complete honesty, exposure, and connection with the audience, he showed no signs of fatigue or letting up.

Opening for Ben Howard was Elena Tonra, of Daughter fame, with songs from her solo work under the pseudonym Ex:Re. Ex:Re’s songs share a musical DNA with Daughter – inescapable since Tonra sings, plays the guitar, and writes lyrics for the band – but find themselves imbued with a sense of both urgency and restraint. There is less of the expansiveness with Ex:Re, less of an almost orchestral shoegaze haze. Whilst happy to play out and wind their way around the room, the songs also at times command your attention with abruptness and sharpness. Joined onstage by a drummer and two multi-instrumentalists who swapped back and forth between cello, bass, guitar, keyboard, and synth, Tonra spent most of her time accompanying herself on guitar as she sang.

At times, she’d lose the guitar and clasp her hands in front of her, eyes closed, as the songs wormed their way out of her. The drummer, however, stood out for the entire performance. In focus, right at the front of the stage, his left leg spasming wildly, keeping time, he was impossible to ignore. The drum’s skin had been stretched so tightly across it, and he played with such heft and control, that all that remained of the sound of each drumbeat was the attack, almost like a gated drum machine played organically. At times, so specific was the sound of the drums, it felt like there could have easily been an 808 machine keeping time rather than a real drummer. Particularly with the second song of the night, 'I Can’t Keep You,' he stood out as the song’s propulsive nature was echoed by double-time drum breaks as he smashed away at his kit. But the crowd favourite was, of course, the Ex:Re single, 'Romance' with its moody dancefloor feel defined by staggering synths and lyrics such as “Romance is dead and done.”

Following the clearing of the stage, and with everything in place for Ben Howard and whoever would be backing him up, it became apparent how lushly sound-tracked the show was going to be. Spaces were set out for a huge array of instruments, with space for an incredible number of people on stage. This wouldn’t be a four-or-five-person band, nor would it be a solo show with Howard alone onstage accompanying himself. As the band members arrived onstage the ranks continued and continued to swell. By the time Ben Howard joined them onstage, to rapturous, screaming applause, there were ten people onstage. Over the course of the performance some band members would leave the stage and then return as and when they were needed, but often all ten would be performing at once. What they performed were songs that stretched out, spiralled down, and floated out. They were songs that moved their way through the room before shuddering their way to a finish. Howard’s voice lent the songs an equal measure of cynicism and romance; there was a desire to love and be loved but also fear and distrust of the uncertainty of it all. As songs swelled up and out, filling the room with contrasting and fiery instrumentation, the stage was full, musicians playing strings, guitars, basses, synths, keyboards and two drummers hammering away. As some songs, however, trickled their way down and band members would leave the stage, their departures were imperceptible: the lights fading out to hide their absence, and Howard’s performance captivating the audience such that they hardly noticed anyone or anything else.

Fourteen songs were stretched out and lingered upon, filling the two hours of performance time with nary a word from Ben Howard save for thank you’s that were delivered with such humility and grace as to prompt roars of love from the crowd. It was a gorgeously raw performance, put together and flawlessly played for sure, but full of intensity and intent. There was a sense of false tranquillity that pervaded the whole set, the music and Ben’s voice combining to give a false air of calm, one undermined and subverted by the impending tempest of raw emotion and vulnerability. It focused heavily on songs from his latest release, Noonday Dream, with nine of the fourteen performed tracks coming from that work. However, he did spread out, touching on Every Kingdom and I Forget Where We Were, as well as two single releases. It was an assured performance from a performer confident in their vulnerability and willing to share.

Photo credit: Jack Kimber