Ever heard of Ben Howard? I hadn’t, but apparently I’m in the minority on that one, since about half of his tour dates are completely sold out. What’s the big deal about him, he’s just another singer/songwriter dude from West London, yeah? That was my question. At his sold out show at Webster Hall Wednesday night, I found out exactly what the pretty big deal is.
I was definitely one of the only ones who was a newcomer to Ben’s music. People were already screaming for him at the beginning of the set, and they really didn’t stop the entire time. After every song the crowd erupted in enthusiastic applause. The backdrop of the stage was a giant full moon when he began to play solo acoustic, his fingers rippling like waves over the strings as he fingerpicked lines that were both melodic and percussive. Next, his band joined him for “Oats in the Water,” and he picked up his electric guitar. He strummed hard and stomped his own beat, while the audience clapped along.
Ben’s got his own style of playing guitar, in the way he switches with his left hand holding the strings down from under and then over, just hitting the bass strings, with his right hand fingerpicking like crazy. He didn’t talk too much between songs, instead concentrating on his guitar, slightly hunched downward as if to fully encompass his picking and strumming with his entire body. When he strummed, it was hard, fervent up-strokes. Every once in a while he moved either closer to the edge of the stage, or over to his multi-tasking musicians. He played off his drummer, who also picked up a bass when the bass player switched to either cello or floor tom, all of them rocking out and building up the music they were making to grand crescendos.
And every song was everyone’s favorite song. Throughout the set, the crowd was singing along, clapping and hollering. They knew all the words, and were visibly joyful to be having this experience. It was actually pretty heartfelt to see this huge sea of people all moving and swaying together, and feeling every note and chord. This was reflective of Ben’s powerful and dynamic performance. His songs have this fullness of emotion, with highs and lows, fast parts and slow parts, loud moments and quiet moments. The crowd reciprocated every nuance, getting excited when Ben became heated in his singing or playing, and respectfully backing off when he backed off. The most raucous moments were probably when he played “Only Love” and “Keep Your Head Up.” During the latter, the amount of people singing along with “Oh yeah, keep your head up, keep your heart strong” became a roaring mantra. It was a shared cathartic moment.
There was no doubt he would come back out for an encore. “Got a bedtime one for ya,” he said, and sat down to play “Promise.” This was the most intimate acoustic number of the night, and the night sky backdrop turned into a harvest moon, with yellow and red stars. It was like we had spent an entire day with Ben Howard. He had taken all these people on a journey with him, through emotional landscapes, and then he put us all gently to sleep. Asleep to dream of the next time we might feel the same way again.
Ben Howard’s got shows up through mid-December, but as before mentioned, many of them are sold out. Check all his dates to see which ones tickets are still available for. His debut album, Every Kingdom, is out now in most of the places you might think you'd find it. You can also sent him a tweet and give him a like.