Gig review: Ben Howard, First Direct Arena, Leeds

Ben Howard.
Ben Howard.
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His trademark earthy, guitar-strung folk-pop musings are instantly recognisable but Ben Howard is no extrovert.

A 28-year-old popstar with the looks to melt the knees of screaming girls and the lyrical depth to impress a musical connoisseur, it’s no wonder that the surfer-turned-songwriter has won both commercial and critical acclaim.

Off the back of the success of his second album ‘I Forget Where We Were’, the Devonian’s visit to Leeds’s First Direct Arena was packed out with teen fangirls, older music lovers and couples alike.

The arena was limited to the main middle tier of seats and ample standing room at the venue’s foot but a huge roar from the assembled crowd set the stage but Howard was keen to get on with the show.

He wandered on stage, his four-piece support band took their places on a raised outer lip of the stage with the two-time Brit Award winning main man in the middle dressed plainly in jeans, a dark blue shirt and leather boots.

Lights shone from the right-hand side of the stage and Howard, hunched over the microphone, launched into the hum-inducing slumber of the gentle ‘Am I In Your Light’.

The tempo soon picked up with another album track – the toe-tapping ‘In Dreams’ combining a thick drum backing with the tinkling of Howard’s guitar and his reflective, at times introvert delivery of lines like “I live a lonely life without you here”, to create a mesmeric sound.

In truth, a really polished, exuberant stage production was not something I expected from a man described a reluctant popstar by many, but the simple yet beautiful rendition of ‘Conrad’ next up was a real highlight. With the whole arena in darkness, the track’s gentle guitar riff set to the soft, drifting vocal of Howard, who was backlit with a huge single spotlight, felt like some kind of musical epiphany before the lighting turned sunset orange and the band took over.

The highlight of the gig had to be the delivery of title track ‘I Forget Where We Were’ though. Its soaring lead guitar riff took centre stage, with the arena coming to a dead silence, rocked by what is an anthemic stadium song that is unlike anything else he has produced. Howard, backed by an army of wandering spotlights, shone, his vocal piercingly on song.

By now the star is warmed up and the crowd is warming, right? For the most part, yes, but Howard’s well-known of aversion to the limelight started to become apparent. There were no pleasantries, no ‘thanks for coming’ or ‘hello Leeds’, clearly the gig was about the music and nothing more – that’s fine, but it does make the crowd feel somewhat distanced from the performance.

Hunched over the mic, Howard ran through single ‘Rivers In Your Mouth’ pretty flawlessly, the toe-tapping drumbeat and Foals-like delayed guitar a busy triumph that built to an indulgent crescendo.

‘She Treats Me Well’ followed before tracks from his debut album ‘Every Kingdom’ started to filter into the mix – ‘Black Flies’ an early introduction.

The precise, visually and sonically impressive yet distant stage show soon saw the main man finally utter a “thankyou” after two-thirds of his set, a collective roar erupted and the awkwardness of his performance slowly dissipated.

Fans of Howard’s first release soon got their fill with the anthemic and empowering ‘Keep Your Head Up’, bringing sections of the seated fans to their feet and the standing contingent to sing along to the much-played chorus with arms aloft.

A slightly organ-backed downbeat rendition of ‘The Fear’ followed and the set soon came to a close, with a few fans around us leaving instantly not expecting an encore from the less than chatty lead man.

Thankfully, Howard soon stepped out, this time on his own. A smile on his face and a bit of banter with the crowd – it was as if a weight was lifted.

He strapped on a white electric guitar and played a spellbinding solo of ‘The Wolves’ under an array of bright white spotlights, the crowd overtly humming along. Ben Howard had finally opened up.

There’s no doubting the his talent, lyrically or compositionally, but seeing the endearing side of the man behind the anthems early on surely would help fans to concentrate more on the music and less on the mood of the gig.