Live Review: Ben Howard at the Loft, June 2, 2012

Photo by Andrew Scoggins

There’s something about Ben Howard that’s special and honest in a way that’s rarely seen in modern music. When you consider the seeming oversaturation of the singer-songwriter acoustic genre, that’s pretty incredible. Dressed all in black, Howard looked unassuming at the Loft last Saturday night. He waved at the crowd while walking on stage, then sipped on his whiskey and sat down. But when he laid his guitar horizontally on his lap and played the “slow-burner” fingerstyling of “Depth of a Distance” as his first song, it because quickly apparent that there is something very different about Howard.

For one, his voice sounds identical to the one recorded on his debut album, Every Kingdom. It’s simply beautiful to hear as his voice starts off in its trademark soft rasp before ramping up the intensity of feeling to a full-blown yell on songs like “Black Flies.” It’s nothing guttural or menacing, but it’s incredibly cathartic, as if it’s the only way that some of Howard’s themes and feelings can be expressed. His guitar playing reflects the same dynamics that his voice embodies.

For people who don’t know, fingerstyle is a method of playing that involves slapping the guitar strings, using hammer-ons and pull-offs, and hitting the guitar body as percussion. So on songs like “Old Pine,” the beginning of the song is in fingerstyle over soft-spoken lyrics but the ending of the song finishes in a foot-stomping crescendo with an intense strumming pattern. Often during the set, Howard wouldn’t end the songs neatly, but would instead jam as hard as he could with drummer/bassist Chris Bond and cellist India Bourne. That kind of energy transferred to the crowd as it clapped, stomped, and sang as loud as it could, leading to Howard laughing, “Christ you guys are fucking loud. I was listening to some Leonard Cohen before this to get ready for an intimate kind of show but you guys are mental!”

The same sold-out crowd that had laughed and burped (in time as well, which was almost impressive) to opening band Bahamas‘ sparse, drummer-less performance was silent during the soft parts of Howard’s set and almost drowned out the PA system during the loud parts. It was a jovial atmosphere with the attendees calling out their favorite songs and Howard more than happy to play whatever they wanted. It felt like a celebration for both parties.

Howard summed up the night the best. “You guys are such a great audience. I really want to thank you,” he said. “This whole thing feels dreamlike…’Living the dream, man.’ That was my Californian accent, if you couldn’t tell,” before laughing and finishing a set that was really something to be experienced.

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