Ask the average music consumer if they know the name Ben Howard and there is a fair chance they will have no idea what who you’re talking about. The reasons for this are numerous and run the gamut from business to a general lack of interest in the unknown, but for those who keep their finger on the pulse his name is synonymous with anyone doing something special in the crowded musical landscape that is 2018. Howard, who hails from the UK, is currently crossing North America in support of his recently released album Noonday Dream. He’s playing theatres in the states, where crowds can range from two to six-thousand per night, but in Canada, he’s even more popular. Those figures are mostly just for industry types though, because for Howard each show is equal, presenting yet another opportunity to share his unique artistic vision with the world at large.
On a warm night in early October, it was Chicago’s Riviera Theatre that played host to his latest outing, and it was filled to the brim with an eclectic mix of concertgoers whose economic status and age was just as diverse sounds coming from the stage. Howard appeared at 9:15 sharp, preceded by Baltimore based act Wye Oak, and accompanying him was no less than seven people (two percussionists, three strings players, one guitarist, and a keyboardist, as well as anything else he might need based on what the songs dictated). Behind him, there was a ruffled screen the size of the back wall that lit up with images of the man himself superimposed onto visions of nature and color. There were also lights, lots of lights, which combined with everything else made for a completely immersive experience for everyone in the crowd.
Describing Ben Howard’s sound to the uninformed, however, is no easy feat. Early albums combined folk and pop sensibilities to create an intoxicating, easy to access sound that helped to catapult him into the international spotlight. His more recent work, specifically the material found on Noonday Dream, is another story altogether. Howard has more recently drawn from a similar artistic palette as The National and Bon Iver, finding inspiration in the experimentation of life itself, only with a distinct sense of Earthy melancholy that wholly his own. His songs do not boast giant hooks or radio-friendly melodies, opting instead to promote a feeling that the listener is invited to join if they so desire.
On this night, Howard chose to leave his early work largely shelved. Though he was on stage for a hair over 90-minutes, the bulk of his fourteen-song set came from hailed from Noonday, with many songs performed in a manner that extended their typical runtime. His crowd rarely, if ever, sang along, nor did they dance. Some may have swayed, but if they did it was with their eyes closed and their fingers extended ever-so-slightly so that they might feel just a bit more of the atmosphere Howard and his band created on stage. In that sense, it was not so much a traditional concert as it is an experience, and it’s one that must be seen and heard to be fully understood.
Ben Howard gets under your skin. Not like a virus or a person you cannot stand, but like the smell after the rain or the way your lover looks at you when it’s clear they won’t be home again for quite some time. His live show is mostly the same, delivering a deeply moving spectacle that slithers off the stage and clings to your bones long after the cold night air has welcomed you back the more vanilla real world we all inhabit.