Review by James Attwood

Having sold out almost immediately, Ben Howard played to a packed-to-the-rafters Manchester Albert Hall on a hot and sweaty Friday evening on the 29th June. Being the first set of announced dates in support of his highly anticipated new album Noonday Dream, it was the first chance for fans to hear the tracks from the often elusive Totnes born songwriter.

By the time North Carolina native and tour support Ryan Gustafson, AKA The Dead Tongues took the stage, the venue was already full with fans eager to see what was in store. Gustafson delivered a set of upbeat rootsy americana tracks, his powerhouse vocal accompanied by nothing but a harmonica and his acoustic guitar. His stripped back, earthy sound was reminiscent of an Every Kingdom era Howard, proving to be the closest thing to the most loved material of the headliner that would be heard throughout the evening. Still Gustafson was an excellent fit for the tour, delivering a confident performance despite coming across quiet from the speakers in comparison to the sound of an extremely warm audience, which drowned out his tender vocal at several points.

The latter half of his set saw him joined by two of Howard’s own band, whom he introduces as ‘good friends’. One thing I would like to point out is that whilst Gustafson played, Ben was sat watching from the VIP seats next to his very own crowd, explicitly showing his kind, down-to-earth nature despite the huge production of his tours and numerous awards to his name.

Ben Howard

Photo by Bianca Barrett from 2014

As the crowd grew and with it the heat, Howard was welcomed to the stage by a roaring Albert Hall. Ben and band exchanged embraces before launching into opening track What The Moon Does. There’s a real community aspect within his band, having written an album together already under the guise of A Blaze Of Feather, it’s clear they are more to Howard than just his backing band. Tonight Ben had a cast of musicians on stage that involved two drummers, two violinists, three guitarists and two keyboardists, as well as a saw… This goes a long way towards displaying the intricacy of Howard’s new album and it’s challenge in a live space. Though overly receptive, it felt that in parts the audience lost interest due to multiple lengthy instrument changes and many instrumental sections.

Nica Libres at dusk was a highlight of the set, the sunset streaming through the windows of Manchester’s Albert Hall provided the perfect ambience for the track, it’s hazy atmospherics instantly taking you to a warm sunset. Other tracks such as Someone In The Doorway and The Defeat contributed well towards the new live set and saw Ben and the band on impeccable point, feeding off each other’s enjoyment throughout.

However, there was little here this evening for the Every Kingdom era Ben Howard fan, with no tracks being performed from perhaps one of the most inspirational albums of the decade. Sadly the same goes for his second album I Forget Where We Were, which previously propelled him to stadium heights. There is however an outing of Small Things this evening which suffered from poor live sound, leaving the audience unable to hear Howard’s guitar at the core of the track. Still the track gained the biggest sing along of the evening, with fans clearly elated to hear work from his second album. I was also happy to see Howard had included the heart wrenching End Of The Affair within his set, which was delivered in it’s usual fiery manner. However just as the band appeared to be hitting their stride, they cut short the final section to accommodate a beautifully delivered acoustic rendition of I Forget Where We Were within the encore. An album about personal struggle, the subsequent live dates of his second release were all about the connection between Howard’s trademark vocal talent and howl and his unique style of Guitar playing, the love and anger behind the album clear within his performances. The tracks debuted from Noonday Dream this evening fall short in a live situation to what I believe were Howard’s best works, feeling a little tame and lacking the raw passion. There was little communication from Howard with his audience this evening which along with their unfamiliarity with his newer material, created an uneasy atmosphere at times.

The more ‘typically’ Ben Howard sounding tracks such as A Boat To An Island On The Wall and Towing The Line did however more than made up for his lack of familiar material and worked well alongside the older tracks he did perform. Howard’s voice was clearly built for acoustically rich venues such as the Albert Hall carrying well through the venue and echoing off the very walls surrounding the venue.

Ben Howard’s new album Noonday Dream is now available everywhere, he will play several dates around the UK later this year.

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