Gallery: Ben Howard at the Vic Theatre
How often do you convince a friend to attend a concert of an artist they don’t know much about? Or who they haven’t heard? Ever fear what they may think or if they’ll enjoy it? Well, last night I had the chance to let our other fearless writer Katia discover one of the year’s biggest British sensations, Ben Howard, on his return to the Windy City. So as a special for this review, we’ll have a sort of “Choose your own adventure” style review where Katia begins for those who are pretty unaccustomed, and then mine for those who have heard Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom or seen him in concert before.
I knew I enjoyed Ben Howard’s music, I just didn’t know how much. Until I saw him perform at Chicago’s famous The Vic Theater. I knew I enjoyed him from his popular songs, “The Wolves”, and “Old Pine”. I admit that what I knew of Ben Howard was based on press releases; a UK musician, signed to the famous Island Records. His debut album, Every Kingdom released last October to much acclaim, and an appearance on an admittedly, favorite BBC show, Later…with Jools Holland.
It was refreshing to see that people still go to mid-week shows, and an early show at that. The Vic Theater was packed full of people for the WXRT 93 XRT sponsored event. As the crew set up the stage for Howard and his band, the eager replenished their empty beer cans rushed to the bar, and of course started talking. The thing about The Vic is that is a beautiful setting, which allows for beautiful acoustics. This is good for a show, bad for when people talk during a show. There is no way around this. But with an artist like Ben Howard, his band, and their performance, the girl talking about Facebook drama is a mere whisper to Howard’s captivating lyrics, and hypnotizing music.
Ben Howard brings us back to the beauty of the singer/songwriter. In a time that is filled with synth-pop-rock-indie-hipster success, Howard celebrates simplicity. Playing, “Black Flies”, a haunting, heart pulling song, the audience singing with him, before he even started. With a giant Harvest Moon as a backdrop, and their flawless performance, Howard and his band made Every Kingdom my new favorite Fall album. It’s hard to believe that just a bit over a month ago Howard played an intimate show at Reggie’s Rock Club, a much smaller venue in Chicago. It’s clear that Ben Howard and his band have been finding their way into the hearts of fans since. Standout songs from the show include: “The Fear”, “Only Love”, “Black Flies” , “Keep Your Head Up” and “Diamonds.” I’ve seen many shows at The Vic, but I haven’t heard an audience that quiet for a show since I saw Elliott Smith there in 2000. With only 5 shows in the rest of this tour that aren’t sold out, do yourself a favor, get tickets.
Switching from the small South Side Reggie’s to the century-old Vic Theatre is quite the jump. Going into the evening, I didn’t know if that was a mistake or not, since I hadn’t heard much on this side of the world buzzing about Ben Howard. Well, granted, they were whispers compared to Europe, where the soft-spoken songwriter dotted the landscape performing festivals including a lucky Soirs d’été in front of the city hall of the 3rd Arrondissement in Paris-for free…to thousands. And you couldn’t help but get caught up, be it from the first view of the flashmob “Only Love” that warms the heart, or first listens to Every Kingdom. The young London musician is just starting to ripen.
Just before, Marcus Foster was a superb opener, working the crowd and keeping them focused on the stage despite the noise in the back near the bar. Me being completely unfamiliar, he reminded a bit of Marcus Mumford’s voice, but with less over the top melodies and more rooted in songwriter. With an ease with the stage, even being far from England, he certainly won over new ears-including this one.
Chris Bond and India Bourne joined Ben once again, as they did in Paris. The two are phenomenal musicians that are essential ingredients to the recipe Howard created, even in Chicago. We saw it quickly Wednesday evening as “Old Pine” topped “Black Flies” as soon as Ben moved back to Chris’ drum kit and crashed the cymbal with a stray hand away from the guitar. Meanwhile, Chris was playing bass guitar (yes, and drums), knocking the head of the bass into his hi-hat as if a drum teacher never taught his student to use drumsticks years in the past. These two are naturals. You could hear the surprise when India switched from bass to cello for the first time with “Black Flies.” Yet later on, the Vic got treated to her impassioned percussion, going to town on the floor tom when previously she just used it to accent a note here or there.
Touring behind Every Kingdom left nothing but one better song after the last, especially as “Diamonds” gave into “Only Love.” The former’s admirable guitarwork giving way to the latter’s hard-to-shake lyrics. “Only Love,” as in July last I caught Ben Howard, didn’t and won’t show signs of wear down the road. The song gives meaning to staying power, giving the full Vic audience (for most) their first taste of singing in chorused harmony. Ben, visibly touched, encouraged the Vic on towards the end, ensuring and confirming that we all should just go along and “show me heart.”
Amid sharing sips of his mug with those in the front row, “Everything” gave way to a slower song just before “The Wolves” satiated. It’s here that you begin to realize that Ben is writing superb songs with pop melodies over music that evokes emotions much as Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros achieve. “The Wolves” and it’s back and forth calls for “Love love love” could have gone on for ten minutes, and no one would’ve mind. Yet when “Keep Your Head Up” came to close the set, all was forgiven.
“The Fear” concluded the evening as the sole encore song. Its anxiety-riddled acoustic guitar swiftly gave into a jubilant atmosphere. Building up with thanks to India abandoning her bass for two mallets and the tom, leading the march.
So while you may not be hearing Ben on more traditional radio outlets all that much (many thanks to 93.1 WXRT for raising his profile in Chicagoland), those who managed to catch him either through bike commercials, viral videos or just mere word of mouth soon found one of those rare songwriters that promises to weather the storms and seasons that are a-changing. While he’s on to the next city, he left the Vic with one of the most satisfying concerts many people have seen in some time.