Live Review: Ben Howard - O2 Brixton Academy, London 17/01/2019


Ben Howard has never been an artist to revel in the limelight. I often think of him as a bit of a hermit; only coming out of the woodworks, when there is a new selection of songs to release into the wild. This can lead to a bit of misunderstanding, for most of us familiar with artists who are constantly on our radar, via social media, radio and the stirring up of drama.

The last time I went to see Ben Howard live, was at Alexandra Palace in April 2015. In what seems to be a trademark of his touring schedule: Ben played three sold out shows, back to back. When the announcement came that he was playing Brixton Academy, with support from Ex:Re – who you might know as Elena Tonra, aka the frontwoman of Daughter – I thought of it as a show that could not be missed, and seeing as though he was playing four dates, there was a good chance of being able to make at least one of them.

Ex:Re is a project that was a way for Elena Tonra to work through the feelings of going through a break-up. With many parallels between their music, she was the perfect opener for Ben Howard. There was a brooding energy in the air, and Elena’s melancholic monotone carried itself crisply above all of the chatter of the crowd who didn’t seem to be paying much attention. What I found most interesting about seeing her perform under the Ex:Re name is that she appeared to be more confident and interactive than she ever has been when I’ve seen her perform with Daughter – though that probably has something to do with years of experience. ‘Where The Time Goes’ and ‘Too Sad’ were perfect introductions to get the crowd warmed up, before the intensely meditative ‘Lies’ and heartbreaking ‘Romance Is Dead’ really set the tone.

Shortly after Ex:Re’s performance, Ben Howard took to the stage. His band set up was a lot more amplified than I have ever seen it before. Each musician was set-up towards the back of the stage, with their own little station that felt as though this was the coming together of many solo artists, rather than a band. The addition of a second drummer and more keys/synths took away the intimacy that I usually feel when listening to Ben Howard’s music. Quite often I wondered why he needed to have so many musicians on stage with him, as the sound was at times disjointed in a way that felt like the instruments were not in accordance and were fighting to be the main attraction.

‘Nica Libres At Dusk’ was an extended jam session, shrouded in psychedelic projections in the background, of multitudes of flora and fauna. This ran straight into the two ‘A Boat To An Island’ songs that are on Ben’s latest album Noonday Dream. With music that really whisks you away, it was incredibly fitting for there to be cinematic projections littered around the stage and along the sides of the walls. As there wasn’t much crowd interaction from Ben, it was almost as if you were watching a live rendition of your favourite film soundtrack. ‘Only What The Moon Does’ was a stunning thing to witness, as it was bathed in electronic synths rather than acoustic dissonance. It was incredibly gripping and pulled you out of the reverie that came beforehand.  

What is most prominent about Ben’s performance is how precise and crisp everything is. The interlude of ‘All Down The Mines’ fades into a cover of ‘Wild World’ by Cat Stevens. If he didn’t go straight into the chorus, you would’ve thought that he had written it, himself. ‘The Defeat’ was an intoxicating experience, as there is a lot of fluidity within the song and the subtle increase in pace allowed Ben to be a little bit more expressive in his guitar solos. Aurally, the evening was perfect but perfection isn’t always a good thing at a gig. It allows time for your mind to wander, when you’re not being captivated by an actual performance. If you are new to the world of Ben Howard you would have been thrilled, as he played the entirety of Noonday Dream – which I must add, is an absolute masterpiece – but as someone who’s been following him from the offset, I was slightly disappointed that the set wasn’t a little more varied. 

As Ben Howard neared the end of the set, more and more people began to leave, which became quite distracting during the wait between the encore. It paid off for those who chose to stay as he played old favourites, ‘Time is Dancing’, the emotionally charged ‘I Forget Where We Were’ and the song that started it all off for me: ‘Black Flies’. Despite the lack of connection with the crowd, it is undeniable that Ben Howard is an outstanding musician and he put on a truly mesmerising and well-thought out show.  

Words by Tyler Damara Kelly

Photography by Megan Smith