Only nine days removed from my last visit to Manchester’s HMV Ritz, I slipped inside the venue, evading a notably dreary night out on Oxford Road. Within minutes I was greeted with a relaxed atmosphere seldom encountered at gigs. The place was beginning to fill up when Howard’s touring support, Daughter stepped up.
It’s always a huge positive when the support throws down a gauntlet of high standard to their more established headliners and Daughter’s unique twist on strong folk-style songs had me tapping the feet and moving the shoulder far earlier than I was ready for. A false-start mid-way through the set was laughed off with a nonchalance that endeared the three-piece to the audience. These guys managed to cast the audio-trick mastered by The White Stripes in creating a cacophony of melodies that could have been seen among a five or six piece, before departing an impressed audience for the main event.
I’ve had Howard’s debut album playing for a large percentage of the week, so I felt amply prepared and ready for what was to come, even going as far as donning a jacket. But the camp-fire melodies of the studio recordings translated to such a foot stomping, vibrant gig that I left the place, wet jacket in hand, muttering expressions of pleasant shock at the nature of his outstanding performance.
It became quickly apparent that his army of loyal followers are amongst the most unshakeable I have witnessed since I began watching live music. The fans endearment to their chosen artists have been pivotal in the success of any of the great gigs I have attended, and this sell-out epic was made all the more powerful by Howard’s gang.
Murmurs of a recent performance of new material performed live on Radio 1 and whether he might give the track an airing tonight were bound amongst a group of people with an open affinity for Howard, not just curiosity.
Opening with a flurry of upbeat tunes including Diamonds and Only Love, the Ritz’s minimalistic stage backdrop and impressive lighting played impressive fodder for Howard’s infectious passion for his music. The band seemed genuinely taken aback by the raucous reception from the loyal followers so soon into the set, expressing this vocally with an admirable humility.
The evident harmony and ease amongst the band members fuelled the rising feverishness assisted by Howard’s playful manipulation of his fans during Old Pine, only to be tempered by the melancholic beauty of Black Flies as the Ritz approached fever pitch. Black Flies bordered on shamanic in its execution as the whole place became entranced in its introspective tones. Only on a handful of occasions have I been fully encapsulated in my own little world at live performances, an achievement tonight underlined by the fact this was my debut Ben Howard gig, now most certainly the first of many. Two tracks in and I was a willing passenger in this experience.
The steady sway of the crowd during this heart-rending brace of slower songs was blasted out of sight as The Wolves and Keep Your Head Up unglued the onlookers, the upper tier reaching out over the balcony as people joined in the choruses with their own mixed bag of vocal talents. As the dust settled, the demand for an encore still ringing in my ears, Howard returned to the stage, switching his set list at the request of the audience for a compelling rendition of Gracious and Oats In The Water; the latter a tantalizing and deep peek into what Howard holds in store for us with his new material.
My previous doubts over where he might go after this debut album have been vanquished and I would encourage anyone to check out this adventurous developing of a solid sound. The Fear sparked a controlled frenzy for a fitting finale to a near perfect performance, the fans visibly saddened after Howard and company had bowed and left the stage sporting humbled grins. At the start of the night, I wondered how he may progress from such a flawless start to his career, but after taking in this triumphant and memorable show, I truly believe we could see him at the top much sooner then previously envisioned.
Words by Ben Tallon