I promise you this, Ben Howard… Concert review

I missed Ben Howard’s performances too many times when I was still living in Europe for trivial reasons I don’t even recall anymore. There was no chance I was going to do that again. Especially that he announced four Splendour in the Grass sideshows quite early on, so I had enough time to pencil at least one of them in my agenda.

To be perfectly honest, the weather on the night of the show didn’t really encourage anyone to leave the comforts of their home: it was raining and the wind was still going mad, amplifying the feeling of cold. Just another winter day in Melbourne.

When I got to the venue, it was packed – the show was sold out. I had a good look around. Unsurprisingly for Melbourne, there was quite a diverse group of fans in attendance, proving that Ben’s music does bring people together.

The artist didn’t leave us waiting long. Since there was no opening act, the band were on stage shortly after nine. Without unnecessary introductions or fumbling around they dived straight into it.

From that moment onwards it all seemed like a perfectly crafted story: each song seamlessly transforming into the next one, with tastefully matched visuals, intricate lighting effects, beautiful colours and interesting stage design. There was a funny fog (haze? mist?) I noticed earlier on and it played its role in the show, dispersing the light and creating that outdoorsy wintry feeling. It was a little chilly inside as well and I start believing it was a part of the plan. The whole package was meant to make you feel cozy, as if you were witnessing an intimate gig in a hut somewhere up in the mountains, with the fire crackling and snow falling outside. The only thing missing was mulled wine. I even thought for a minute that I really like winter.

Ben isn’t much of a talker at gigs, so the show was almost uninterrupted by a spoken word. Aside from a few occasions when he thanked the audience in between songs and whilst the band were setting up for the encore and a few jokes were shared with the audience. But there was no need for him to entertain us in any other way, the music did its job perfectly.

It wasn’t a hit setlist, more like a naturally flowing consequence of sounds. The core of the set was the Noonday Dream album with a rearranged order of the tracks. An unknown piece called “Hot Heavy Summer” was also performed for the very first time towards the end. The encore included tunes from the two previous albums. I’m sure the audience expected more of the older releases but Ben had a different vision. And he was right. Our patience was rewarded, however – the set was closed with the beloved “Promise” – the last track from Every Kingdom.

What quite surprised me was the number of musicians on stage. With (sometimes at once) four guitars, two drums/percussion sets, strings and keys there were nine people (including the man himself), most of them multi-instrumentalists and vocalists. I guess I just hugely underestimated how much arrangement Ben’s music needs to be recreated in a non-studio environment. It didn’t feel like a crowd, though – everyone knew exactly what they were doing and it seemed that they were really comfortable in their roles. Including the guitar techs who casually strolled on stage a few times during the performance to exchange the gear for the songs to come. Additionally, the dimmed lighting was very democratic, meaning that nobody in particular (not even Ben at times) was in the spotlight.

Another aspect hugely contributed to creating this unique ambience – the venue itself. In my humble opinion, this is an element that can either make or break the performance. No matter how elaborate your visuals are, if the place doesn’t resonate with the sound (literally and metaphorically), the efforts go in vain. In this case, booking the show at the Palais Theatre was a winner. Its old theatre character, the seating configuration and grandiose size were not only the ideal background but actually enhanced the performance.

The magic created by the band lasted for about 100 minutes and I didn’t really want it to end. When we were leaving the venue I overheard someone say that the gig was “sad in a positive way”. And I agree. Ben’s songs are complex and not easy to listen to. They have a mysterious depth you really need to explore over time to connect with it. But we all got a good taster of what it means to be fully submerged.

So I promise you this, Ben – I will never ever miss your show again when you’re next in town.

Ben Howard

Noonday Dream Tour

Palais Theatre

St Kilda, Victoria, Australia

Tuesday, 24 July 2018, 9PM

Setlist:

  1. (First Live Performance)
  2. Encore:

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