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Ben Howard, Birmingham Symphony Hall

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Singer songwriter misses the mark
British singer-songwriter Ben Howard's concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall was a sell-out which, when you are talking about a venue with a capacity of more than 2,000, is pretty impressive. Which makes it all the more disappointing that this gig didn't quite hit the mark.

Howard began the first track, A Boat to an Island on the Wall, shrouded in darkness, gradually turning up the lights until he was illuminated and emerged from the shadows. But this desire for the obscure also revealed itself in a set list almost entirely gleaned from his 2018 album Noonday Dream rather than opting for his more popular songs.

Ben Howard
Ben Howard

It's always a risky tactic to take the audience into a single album and eschew the hits as it presupposes a high level of knowledge and engagement from your ticket-holders. In order for it to work, an artist has to really invest in the audience and Howard's introspective presentation of the material ensured there was little interaction between the two. A couple of mumbled references to the desire to write a 'romantic song' was the sum total of Howard's discussion with the audience.

Howard wasn't helped by poor sound quality which, unusually for Symphony Hall, ensured his vocals were largely lost in over-emphatic reverb and distorted instrumentation.

In a 90-minute set there was plenty of material with tracks including Nica Libres at Dusk, Towing the Line and All Down the Mines. With eight musicians and backing singers, Howard's music was given plenty of support but some audience members were clearly disgruntled and voted with their feet leaving part way through the concert.

The music was set against a projected backdrop with a series of enigmatic images including planets, forests, windows, amorphous shapes, flowers and images of Ben himself. There were also a couple of minutes showing a crowd of shoppers fighting over televisions during Black Friday which seemed out of place alongside the other imagery but was entertaining to watch.

At the encore it looked like the concert may take on a new lease of life as Howard embarked on the new track Heave Ho but after that one song he finished, bizarrely telling the audience he had 'a couple more tracks he would play next time'. Fans who had been studying the setlist from previous dates on the tour and were hoping for Black Flies and Hot Heavy Summer were left sorely disappointed.

Howard is an accomplished and album chart-topping singer-songwriter who has won a Brit award and been nominated for a Mercury so has bags of talent. But a combination of a weak setlist, poor sound quality and an unwillingness to engage with the audience ensured this concert failed to showcase that ability.
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Why? Ben Howard live
When: 21 Jan 2019
Phone: 0121 780 3333
Where: Birmingham Symphony Hall
Cost: 38
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