Ben Howard

support Monica Heldal
author TL date 18/12/12 venue Store Vega, Copenhagen, DEN

There's an argument to be had about whether coverage of British singer-songwriter Ben Howard is really relevant on You could be especially inclined to think so if you only know him from his newfound presence on the radio, where I hear "Only Love" has been making the rounds as a single. I bring this potential argument up only so I can completely disregard it however, because no matter how annoyingly trendy folk and singer-songwriter has become in recent years, Howard's 2011 debut LP "Every Kingdom" was such a stunning feat of songwriting - nevermind the genre - that anything but a steady rise in popularity for him would be flat out unfair. So I'm here, in a maxed out Store Vega on a Tuesday night, and even the prospect of standing shoulder to shoulder with people who are less obsessive music nerds than myself is doing little to nothing to dampen my excitement for what is to come.

More excellent photos by Peter Troest? Find them here

Support act Monica Heldal

Monica Heldal

I am late however (always rely on me to fail at guessing whether the 'Start' time on Vega's website actually means 'Start' or just 'Doors') so unfortunately I don't get to see much more than a single song of support act Monica Heldal, whom Ben Howard's fans should recognise for her guest appearance on "Burgh Island" from the EP of the same name. For her last song though, Heldal is joined only by a single electric guitar-player - as I imagine she has been for the entire set maybe? - and the two of them are playing a brand of stripped down country that, unsurprisingly, is similar to Howard's music in its intent to show off skills both with singing and guitar. Unfortunately, I can't hear the backing vocals from Heldal's assistant from where I'm standing, so I can't say much about the harmonies, but the main woman herself sounds quite fine and delicate, and she shows that she can play as well as sing when she flashes some fast and fancy guitar-work to close off the set. The song itself however, did not seem particularly attention-grabbing to be honest, but then this was my first encounter with Heldal's material and it was the only part of the set I saw, so please just take the number here to the right with a considerable pinch of salt:

Ben Howard

As the changeover dwindles away along with the obligatory beers from the bar, I have just enough time to wonder whether the coming experience is going to be hindered by the low-key, mostly acoustic nature of Ben Howard's music. As soon as the lights start to dim gradually however, it becomes clear that there's nothing to worry about, with even the house chandeliers flashing eeriely before going dark, rather than just being cut unceremoniously (nice touch!). Howard and his band, who contribute with electric guitar, drums, samples, electric bass and cello, appear and get things started on an immediately well-received and well-sounding note with "Everything". The calm number is followed by the brooding "Black Flies" which turns the mood upside-down, and while Howard delivers this favourite of mine intensely, the audience is getting its first tastes of a small stroke of genius in the visual department: Behind the band is a massive backdrop with a great circle on it, which is used in conjunction with different projections and colours of light to resemble the red sun of summer dusk during Howard's brighter moments, and the pale moon of midnight during the gloomier songs at the opposite end of his spectrum. It is even made to resemble the circle made by headlights on a dark country road towards the end of the set, and the whole spectacle greatly enhances the atmosphere of the music in a simple yet effective way.

The show progresses with further "Every Kingdom" highlights "Old Pine", "Diamonds", "Under The Same Sun" (a bonus track) and early culmination "Only Love". I'm positively surprised to see a crowd that tries to restrain itself from the sort of vulgar outbursts that often serve as nuisances when tender music is brought on a big stage, and even more pleased when I see people gradually lose composure in the best way, with many little enclaves jumping, swaying and singing along almost despite themselves. Meanwhile Howard and his band are putting on a clinique in musicianship on stage, and knowing what hard-earned arts guitar-playing and singing are, there is something simple-yet-amazing in watching a man from which both just flow in generous, seamless streams. The ginger Brit plays and sings with the charisma of a quiet star and with the precision of a tuning fork, and he is assisted masterfully by his equally proficient band, with especially the soulful cello-playing and angelic backing vocals of India Bourne (who also plays bass) impressing.

Earlier in the show I wondered why Howard would darken the mood early by playing "Black Flies" so soon, but it becomes clear when he follows the much applauded "Only Love" with two of the moodier, lesser known songs from his recent EP. "Burgh Island" and "Esmerelda" are hence performed with confidence - and with Monica Heldal naturally appearing on the former - and Howard and his band rock about looking like they have no worries as to whether this second less accessible stretch could test the patience of the audience. But then, while the reception for the pair is not at its loudest, people still seem welcoming when "Wolves", "Keep Your Head Up" and "The Fear" swing back in and summon excited movement back to the floor, while forming an end to the regular set.

By now though, the mood in the audience is one of widespread bedazzlement and the pleading applause and floor-stomping after the regular set is thundering and uninterrupted. So while I would not have been surprised if Howard had called it a night after the whopping one hour and forty minutes that have already flown by with barely anyone noticing, I am rather surprised when he returns with another curveball in form of another favourite of mine: "Oats In The Water". Despite this being the last show of a year of intense touring, Howard - who has been as forthcoming and untouched by visible tour-weariness as can be, both between and during songs, often ending numbers strumming his guitar frantically and vividly - precedes the final song by insisting on thanking every individual in his band and crew, and given how good they have been for almost two hours, this does not seem indulgent at all. Rather it feels like a special occasion when everyone comes on stage during the final, sentimental goodbye that comes in form of "Promise". It's an endearingly warm way to round off a show that in many ways has been scary strong and which it is almost completely impossible to complain about. So while I will probably never shake a certain disappointment over not seeing Howard in a more intimate setting among diehard fans only, him and his band handle this evening so masterfully that it still cruises easily into the top five of shows I've seen this year.


  • Setlist:
  • 1. Everything
  • 2. Black Flies
  • 3. Old Pine
  • 4. Diamonds
  • 5. Under The Same Sun
  • 6. Only Love
  • 7. Burgh Island (feat. Monica Heldal)
  • 8. Esmeralda
  • 9. Wolves
  • 10. Keep Your Head Up
  • 11. The Fear
  • - Encore -
  • 12. Oats In The Water
  • 13. Promise

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