Ben Howard

support Jack Garratt
author TL date 19/11/14 venue Falconer Salen, Copenhagen, DEN

In comic books, great power comes with great responsibility. In music, great success comes with great expectations from fans and critics alike. The music scene - though it may often seem like an unfair industry - works completely reasonably in this way: If a songwriter from the south of England has two magnificent, widely appealing albums out already at 27, he is justly catapulted into a career where world tours of big, respectable venues are on the schedule, and where fans expect the promises of each great song to be kept both in future songs and in live performances. That's what brings us to Falconer Salen tonight: An active recording artist for only six years, Ben Howard's qualities as both a singer and guitarist on 2011's "Every Kingdom" and this year's "I Forget Where We Were" have been so spectacular that he has quickly broken through to both critical and mainstream success, allowing his first concert in Copenhagen to hit Store Vega two years ago. Tonight the even bigger Falconer Salen seems a fitting location for his second visit, and the near sold out status of the event is as always a nice indicator that venue and demand match each other. As per usual with the more mainstream audience of Denmark's capital however, coming out early is not a priority, so the concert room is only almost half-full when tonight's support act comes on.

All photos courtesy of philipbh.com

Jack Garratt

Entering Falconer's wide stage alone, the young yet fully bearded Londoner Jack Garratt at first imposes a rather small presence in the room. This only lasts until he starts playing - piano with his left hand, digital percussion with his right and would you picture that: He plays piano riffs with his off-hand while using a drum stick to lay down abrupt beats and control sample pads with his right. It so happens that he also sings brilliantly, sounding a bit like Denmark's own Troels Abrahamsen or like Wild Beasts' singer Hayden Thorpe, and his voice is great both in lower notes, high falsetto and even some scratchy belting on occasion. For good measure, Garrat also slings on a guitar for some songs, just so he can lay down a noisy riff or solo when his songs call for it.

Clearly then, this is a guy who can do it all, and does it all in employment of minimalist, jazzy pop-tunes where the beat is rampant with constant variations, and where piano signatures lay a catchy foundation for Garratt to sing upon. To say that this is an impressive display of multi-instrumentalism falls flatly short of the mark, especially because the use of the drumstick allows Garratt to give energetic physical movement to the songs that already feature considerable vocal acrobatics. If you're not a bit awestruck with seeing how well he handles the various elements in his songs, you must have little idea how hard playing one instrument really is, let alone playing three while singing as well. That said, the novelty - however striking - inevitably wears a bit thin across Garratt's allotted half-hour, and in the low but precise mix there's room to hear the many casual music fans raise their chatter as they gradually become impatient.

By insisting to build every song live while still only having two hands and a voice, Garratt is naturally restricted to using loops, which puts a limit on how complex the various melodic components and compositional transitions can actually get. Garratt seems to attempt compensation for this by making the individual beats and melodies as varied and surprising as possible, but he doesn't seem to have found the perfect balance yet, and the songs, while tight and brilliantly sung, would only rank as decent material if you consider them isolated from the impressive fact that Garratt performs them solo. It's a promising first encounter with the hip Englishman though, especially considering the easy-going, charming attitude he expresses between songs, and so it only remains to be seen if he can overcome the limitations of his concept to create more songs that can wow you, regardless of whether you know if he did it himself or had bandmembers to help.

7

Ben Howard

After half an hour's worth of changeover plus a slight extra delay, Falconer is now quite filled with anxiously beer-sipping patrons. We get an awkward start to the experience, as the band starts playing for a few seconds before someone at the sound desk remembers to actually turn them up on the PA. Clumsy but forgiveable we think at first, but alas, it's only the first in a long line of imperfections that tonight's production has in store for us. The first song is "She Treats Me Well", the most laid back song from the new album, and with the band appearing as silhouettes in front of a red gradient displayed across a massive LED backdrop, Howard himself is seated front and centre, completely obscured from view of anyone at my 180 centimeters of height or shorter.

Fortunately, as Howard progresses with "In Dreams" and "Conrad" - also from "I Forget Where We Were", it's quite clear that as musicians, both him and his band are entirely on point. Tonight's mix is quiet, yet relatively clear, and while Howard's voice is not quite far enough in front for us to make out the delicate fringes of his tones, you can hear him perform each note with measured elegance, fingerpicking the guitar that's laid across his knees as he is known to do and cooperating tightly with the percussion, contrabass and other additional instruments his band plays behind and to the sides of him. The excellence of the material is not to be denied, and it's a telling fact that despite the low volume and less than obvious ways in which Howard's songs are brilliant, the blabla'ing from Falconer's otherwise talkative guests has ceased to a barely audible minimum. It seems that despite the widespread appeal of the more obvious singles from "Every Kingdom", the crowd knows him well enough to be prepared for the darker explorations that come from his later material, and for the understated performance these are delivered with.

That being said, as "I Forget Where We Were", "The Fear" and "Rivers In Your Mouth" roll by, you start to combat the growing awareness that, as expert as the musicianship is, the show as a production is far less than what a stage as large as this demands. If Howard is to play seated, having him sit on some sort of platform where we could see his skill would be a good beginning, or failing that, how about some live footage displayed across those massive screens behind him? Such would have been a vast improvement on the embarrasingly simple visuals we're treated to, which range from simple gradients over single-coloured "rain stripes" on a black background to static similar to what we know from old TV sets. Old Windows screen savers were more elaborate, and the light show - an element that usually does its job fairly well even when you don't even notice it - spends more time projecting bright rays onto the audience, meaning that either we can see each other more clearly than anything on stage, or we can see a handful of black silhouettes on stage with bright lights behind them.

So, when this article opens by stating that great success comes with great expectations, it does so to imply that for ticketholders - having paid the steep price of 400,- dkk - it's only natural to expect that Howard and his associates would have grown with their success level and created a production in collaboration with Falconer Salen, that would go further towards making the purchase feel worthwhile than what we actually see (or don't see). Concerts are obviously about music as much as about seeing the artist, and it can't be condeded enough that there were only slight mix improvements to be desired in this department, as Howard's continued stroll through mainly his new material proved. With the set including "End Of The Affair", "Time Is Dancing", "Evergreen" and "Small Things", and ending with "All Is Now Harmed" after an encore that also comprised "Everything" and "Black Flies" from the first album, fans got to hear a solid sample of Howard's capabilities.

That's what it felt like even at best though - A sample compared to what Howard's live tour should really be capable of, especially considering the much better show at Vega from two years ago. Bless Ben Howard for playing, singing and writing material so good that one still feels in the presence of greatness just by being here and hearing him actually perform the small slices of magic lifted from his albums - But think about how much of a difference it would have made, had someone given him a few phone books to step up on, and cranked the volume up to a level where we could feel it. For isn't that what shows are for? To hear the music while seeing and connecting with the artist, and while feeling the joyous sound gently vibrating your bones? Important parts of those are missed tonight, so while it is much to ask of a man making such leaps with his recorded material, one hopes that Ben Howard can also catch up to the increasingly complicated demands that manifest when shows need to entertain thousands of people, not just hundreds.

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