Live review: Ben Howard

On September 24, singer-songwriter Ben Howard thrilled a packed crowd at Toronto’s Sound Academy. Howard, who was raised in Totnes, a market town in the county of Devon, England, released his first album, Every Kingdom, in October of last year. His music is identified variously as folk, folk rock, alternative, acoustic, and indie. In reality, he is an under-the-radar triple threat.

First, Howard’s voice is a spectacle in itself, rumbling across a shockingly wide range of vocal registers. He also plays the guitar with incredible expertise, employing complicated fretwork, colourful riffs, and sporadic drumming on its body to produce the characteristic sound he has become known for. His lyrics tell tales of good times with friends and love in its most elemental form, perfectly complementing the acoustics of his tracks.

The crowd at the Sound Academy was made up of music lovers of all stripes, reflecting the mosaic of influences present in Howard’s music. I heard more than one UK accent in the crowd as I pushed my way closer to the front.

Howard opened the show with a new song. Throughout the concert, he played more untitled tracks, presumably from his upcoming album. They all shared a sound distinguishably different from that of Every Kingdom: heavier in bass and slower-paced, enveloping the audience in a warm blanket.

His set flowed beautifully, gearing up with “Diamonds” and “Old Pine”, followed by a swift transition into “Only Love”, a softer, delicate ballad. Howard got the crowd oohing to “The Wolves”, punctuated by his signature fast-paced strumming, and finished with his uplifting single “Keep Your Head Up”.

Howard is an intriguing performer, if you could even call him that. The concert felt more like a cozy jam session than the huge show it was. Howard was engrossed in the music, often turning away from the audience to strum vigorously, and squeezing his eyes shut at intimate moments.

But his expertise was inspiring. In the middle of one track, his guitar strap snapped, but I almost didn’t notice, because he played it off without even a minor interruption of the song.

Howard’s bandmates, India Bourne and Chris Bond, complemented his performance, singing backup in addition to their instrumental accompaniment. Bourne gave off an Emily Haines-esque vibe, her eyes hidden by chopped bangs as she swayed rhythmically on the bass. She also played cello, keys, and percussion throughout the set. Bond was a quieter presence on stage, but nonetheless an incredible talent. He is best known for playing percussion and electric guitar simultaneously.

The close-knit connection between Howard, Bourne, and Bond added an element to their music that I’d never heard before the concert. At the height of the encore performance of “The Fear”, Bourne and Howard formed a circle around Bond at the drums. Howard hunched passionately over his guitar, strumming with incredible stamina as Bourne jumped, beaming so brightly it could be seen from the back of the hall. Howard took his hand off the fretboard for a split second to slam the crash cymbal before closing the song.

“Thanks for coming to the docklands of Toronto,” Howard saluted his audience before leaving the stage.

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