The ambiguous presence of Ben Howard and his moving melodies swept through the echoing levels of St. Kilda’s Palais Theatre, when the British indie/folk musician stopped by for a few shows.
However, Tuesday night was less of a ‘show’, rather more of an attempted performance art piece; a mystifying grasp of an eerie aesthetic he so dearly tried to capture, yet didn’t quite succeed in. Without pausing to engage with the audience, introduce himself or any of his meditative songs, Howard smoothly transitioned between tracks, with only the stage lights as a real indication as to whether he was finished or not, and if we should start clapping. In saying that, his performance was as much confusing as it was musically impressive. Howard’s band – comprising of two drummers, a three-piece string section, two pianists and two guitarists – were astonishingly tight. Clearly a selection of brilliant musicians who’ve played countless shows to perfect their sound, they greatly assisted Ben in holding the theatre’s attention all night. I can’t fault their ability to stay ‘in-character’, perpetuating the melodramatic vibe that was intended, even if I think it was a bit over-done and distant.
In usual Ben Howard fashion, he refrained from playing his older, more well-known tracks from albums Every Kingdom and I Forget Where We Were – instead opting to play through his entire new album, Noonday Dream, released at the start of June. The wandering flow of ‘Nica Libres At Dusk’ with its high electric guitar vibratos, the punching drums that land toward the end of ‘A Boat To An Island On The Wall’, and the acoustic-folk finger plucking featured in ‘Towing The Line’ created emotion, suspense and drive that was stunning to watch. The distorted guitar and percussion in ‘What The Moon Does’ and the rhythm-section stand-outs of ‘Someone In The Doorway’ and ‘The Defeat’ complimented Ben’s soft, murmuring vocals (more often unintelligible than not) quite well.
The set built steadily until his last piece, ‘Murmurations’, faded out as Ben and the band walked off stage without a word or acknowledgement to the audience. It was jarring, confusing and instantly snapped everyone out of the trance we had slowly been coerced into, as heads turned and murmurations of our own began to stir. It was a very weird, sudden act that seemed unplanned and out of place. The audience’s general feeling of confusion meant that there was hardly a cheer for an encore, yet as with every artist these days, it’s an expected practice. After a short wait, Ben and the band returned with smiles and laughter – a completely different attitude than what they’d demonstrated all night so far. It was as if they’d gone off stage, broken character, and now come back as themselves; ready to play through some old songs and give the crowd what they truly wanted. ‘Small Things’, ‘End of The Affair’, ‘I Forget Where We Were’ and ‘Promise’ from his first two records were performed – classic Ben Howard that we all knew and loved.
Despite being an extremely talented musician and composer, backed by a band with equally as much talent, Ben Howard’s performance needs refining. Musically and visually, it was brilliant. Yet the constant feeling of disconnection from the artist as he sailed between looming alternative folk songs was far too obvious. Overall feelings of disengagement and distance from what was unfolding on stage definitely impacted his attempt to place the audience in a state of wonder and mystery. I’m still a fan of Ben Howard, but I probably wouldn’t rush back to see his live act again soon.
Tuesday July 24, 2018
Reviewed by Zach Edwards
Photo by Savannah Van Der Niet