When paying hard earned cash money to see a musician live, are you paying for them to do what you want? Or, as a true fan, should you appreciate that the artist is a not a product, and that they make art for personal expression, rather than to pander to you? This seemed to be the divisive issue amongst the 1,500 strong crowd at UEA’s LCR after Ben Howard finished his somewhat bizarre set.
As I was on the guest list for this gig I feel I am in an oddly apt position to evaluate this argument. For me, money was not a factor. I wasn’t equating a musical experience to pennies, pounds, and hours spent stacking shelves at the UEA shop. The currency I had invested instead was a whole lotta love for Ben Howard and his unshakeable talent. In an ideal world that’s how we would all pay for gigs, right?
Right. For now though, musicians have to eat, and luckily for Howard, his paying audience jam-packed the intimate venue. Despite Howard’s huge popularity, he unexpectedly ambled onto the stage to introduce his support, Pete Roe. It was warming to see Howard eschewing the suspense of the usual procedure in order to praise the London singer-songwriter, who justified Howard’s show of respect by delivering a set of stunningly simple melodies.
Reminiscent of Ben Howard’s former style, Roe’s set (perhaps intentionally) highlighted the distance Howard has moved since the release of his Mercury nominated breakthrough album Every Kingdom. The understated set up of one-man-and-his-guitar transitioned into an arsenal of instruments, five backing musicians and one of the most substantial lighting sets I have ever seen in the LCR. Howard cemented this change with the opening bent notes of Small Things, a new song whose warped complexity was heightened by white, wintry beams lighting Howard up. His tenor vibrato voice carried well in the LCR, the songs’ sombre lyrics remaining eerily clear over the layering of sounds behind him. Continuing in this strain, he chose to focus on the lyrically intense songs of I Forget Where We Were, breaking from the album only for the equally shadowy Oats in the Water and The Fear. Unfortunately, the intended ambience was disrupted by Howard changing guitars for virtually every song, leaving large, awkward gaps between each spectacle. There was enough time for the audience to lose their awe and remember that they were watching a constructed performance. Despite this, dark beauty filled the spaced out expanse for the best part. There was certainly no room for light, upbeat balladry, not even in the form of the popular Only Love or Keep Your Head Up.
Thus, it struck me as strange that after a couple of songs Howard asked the audience what they would like to hear. Shortly after the request, a fan asked for The Wolves, an up tempo, yet lyrically bleak hit from Every Kingdom. Whilst I did not expect a show reel of Howard’s greatest hits, I was astounded to hear him respond to the fan as if she’d challenged him to play the Benny Hill theme tune. Howard labelled The Wolves ‘f*cking boring’ and later continued to ramble about how nowadays all people want is entertainers, and it’s ‘f*cking boring’. In a rant of near Kanye sized proportions, he launched into a string of complaints about seemingly irrelevant topics, the crowd’s laughter gradually dissipating as confusion and impatience kicked in. As he continued, earlier remarks began to seem bitter rather than light hearted, such as him describing the performance as a ‘weird Norwich gig’ and calling the audience ‘a bunch of c*nts’. Howard gracefully concluded the rant with, ‘we're only playing one more song, you might think we’re a bunch of c*nts, but oh well’, before finally beginning the epic End of the Affair.
It was a sell-out crowd, but Howard should not have been so wary of figuratively selling out too. Some may argue that he should have played the songs that made him big, but when focused on the brilliant I Forget Where We Were, he proved himself to be an incredibly talented, unique, and credible artist. Thus, it’s a shame that his songs couldn’t solely do the talking. Howard’s attempts to stay critical and true to his craftsmanship place him in danger of doing the opposite and floating off into an elevated plane of seriousness, thus alienating his adoring fans.