It’s the first of the month and I’m back at the Royal Albert Hall, this time for Ben Howard, who kicked off a European tour back in May. At this point, the incredible Royal Albert Hall needs no introduction. Ben’s debut album Every Kingdom, released in 2011, was an incredible display of workmanship and one that I would consider one of the finest albums of the last decade. It was succeeded by I Forget Where We Were in 2014, a record which got better and better every time I put it on. However, the two albums that followed strayed far from the Mercury Prize nominee’s original songwriting brilliance.
Ben Howard @ Royal Albert Hall
As I arrive at the venue, Guatemalan composer Mabe Fratti is already centre stage with her cello, as support tonight. The usual Stalls seating have been stripped away to reveal a circular pit resembling a bullring. Speaking to the most committed of fans with their arms resting over the stage barrier, I could sense expectation was high – eagerly awaiting Ben Howard’s return to a London stage since 2021.
Accompanying Ben tonight are his long-time musical companions India Bourne (cello), Mickey Smith (guitar/bass), Kyle Keegan (drums), R D Thomas (keyboard) and Nat Wason (guitar). The band walks on stage in almost complete darkness, surely they can’t possibly see where they’re going. They’re joined by Ben moments later, and I don’t notice him until he’s right in front of me strapped to a vintage looking black Silverton Bobkat.
He starts with Couldn’t Make It Up followed by Walking Backwards, first and second singles released from his upcoming fifth album Is It?, respectively. If you’ve already spotted the pattern and guessed how tonight’s show is going to go, then you’ve already done better than me. My allocated time to shoot is quickly up and I find my seat in the Circle.
It’s a two-hour show, and after one hour and 15 minutes we finally find out what the obscure, electronica-infused haunting sounds, under a mostly backlit stage, is all about – a complete run through of Is It?. With sounds meshed into one another and it’s hard for even the sharpest ears to decipher where one song ends, and another begins. Directly above the stage, and onto the 9,999 organ pipes, is a stunning light show and abstract projection of colour.
Ben Howard @ Royal Albert Hall
Some people are audibly confused and at one point I hear “play something we know!”. Others around me have become so distracted that they started reaching for their phones. Can’t blame them. He takes off his jacket and someone shouts “go on Ben!” in an attempt to inject some energy into tonight’s performance, but it’s greeted with a witty remark on how “it’s always condescending when someone uses your first name.”
I have no problem with artists performing debuts tracks live, or even whole unreleased records front to back. It can be a thrilling and unique journey between old and new songs, but when it lacks charisma and basic stage persona, it makes it a hard pill to swallow. Throw in a bit of indifference towards the crowd and sprinkle it with arrogance, things go from bad to worse quickly. I feel bad for those poor souls standing tonight, at least I have a seat.
First roar of applause of the evening goes to I Forget Where We Were as it jolts the audience into life. Black Flies is the perfect example of Ben’s creative magic and fans get their fix of the good stuff, with In Dreams in tow. I fear it’s too little too late. Ben performs Small Things, one of my favourites and a clever piece of songwriting, before exiting the stage.
Promise, the closing track from Every Kingdom, is saved for the finale. The crowd that had been previously unsettled, is now at peace. With minimal support from the band, Ben delivers a wonderfully melodic song on the struggles of love and bleakness of winter.
And with that, the lights come on and I down what’s left of my lukewarm cider before finding the nearest exit. Tonight’s performance left the audience wanting more, but I wouldn’t be so certain they would get it next time either. Kudos to Allan Wilson for the impressive visual projections though, they certainly stole the show tonight.
Live review and photography of Ben Howard @ Royal Albert Hall by Dnieper Cruz on 1st June 2023