Ben Howard @ Edinburgh Playhouse – Live Review

Earlier this month we were gifted with the release of Ben Howard’s highly anticipated third studio album ‘Noonday Dream‘, a sprawling collection of hazy, tantalising, and richly textured tracks that provide a stark contrast to the catchy folk-pop of his 2011 debut ‘Every Kingdom’. This latest release instead builds on the sound established on his 2014 sophomore album ‘I Forget Where We Were‘, a considerably darker affair that clung on to Howard’s distinct flair for introspective and tender songwriting.

Last night, Howard played his only Scottish date at the Edinburgh Playhouse, an intimate and beautiful venue that was well suited to him, accompanied by eight backing musicians, including a string section and two drum kits. It was evident from the stage set up alone that this was a serious show.

Howard took to the stage and sat with his guitar in front of a stunning backdrop made up of white squares where Howard’s longtime collaborator Mickey Smith’s(also performing on keys and guitar) cinematography  was projected. Each one displaying flickers of lightning; a murder of crows; dark clouds; and shadowy figures wandering across sparse stretches of land throughout. ‘A Boat To An Island On The Wall’, the lead single from ‘Noonday Dream‘, opened the set and allowed the crowd of 3000 to witness exactly how the band creates the distinct, intricate layers that amount to the exquisite and fragile calm that Howard is so well known for.

Towing The Line‘ followed, and is a track that sounds considerably better in a live show than it does on the album; Howard’s vocals are sublime and haunting here. The setlist had little regard for a traditional structure, largely adhering to tracks from his new album, each one ebbing between dreamy and chaotic. ‘The Defeat‘ in particular built spectacularly into a wall of white noise.

This focus on newer material meant that there was very little room for tracks from Howard’s much loved debut, or his sophomore for that matter. ‘Small Things‘, ‘I Forget Where We Were‘, and ‘Promise‘ were therefore fondly received by the audience, who sat silently, composed, and utterly enthralled for the most part. It was hypnotic to watch Howard’s songs come to life on stage, and he remained engrossed in the experience too, only addressing the room with humble, and genuine ‘thank you’s’ dotted here and there.

The lack of early favourites like ‘Keep Your Head Up‘ and Only Love‘, while noticeable, did no harm to the set, and was actually an admirable and bold move on Howard’s part. It is rare for an artist not to sprinkle the odd ‘crowd-pleaser’ into a live show, but for Howard doing this is simply not necessary. With very little excessive showmanship and a setlist mostly devoid of singles, Howard had the Playhouse in the palm of his hand, captivated and in awe. As the final few sombre notes of ‘Promise‘ play out, Howard stands and the crowd mirror him; he had certainly earned this standing ovation. He bows, before gesturing to the eight-piece band behind him, urging fans to applaud them too, then drifts off stage with a final wave and gentle smile.

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