Last night saw Ben Howard & co roll into the Motorpoint Arena for a sold-out show at Cardiff’s biggest music venue, and there was definitely a buzz of expectation around the place while the crowd filled into the hall. In support were Wisconsin’s Aero Flynn, a band that sounded like they were caught between the sounds of Radiohead and Local Natives without really managing to shine quite as well as the actual bands themselves. There were a few songs that caught my attention, but as is always the risk when an unknown supports a sell-out act the crowd just didn’t seem to buy into the show, so while they certainly gave it a good go the result was a bit flat.
Unfortunately that seemed to set the atmosphere for the majority of Ben Howard’s set, with the first half of songs lacking any real energy. Opening the set was the lesser known Am I In Your Light which, in fairness, was quite a muted, but enjoyable start to the gig – that said, it was almost as if some of the crowd didn’t even seem to realise this was a song in itself. Following on from there was a number of songs from the second album, I Forget Where We Were, which never really got going for whatever reason. Noticeably absent from the group were the Bond brothers, who usually supply the drumming and rhythm guitar to Ben Howard’s music; instead they were replaced by a drummer that – in my mind – was under-par and three additional guitarists, one of whom would occasionally pop onto the organ.
To be honest, I don’t know what’s happened there but from briefly looking online it would appear that they have been removed as part of the Ben Howard “group”, shall we say, and replaced with the musicians that were on-stage last night. Suffice to say the performance suffered for it, and I hope that it isn’t a permanent change to the line-up. Part of the appeal in the sound of Ben Howard is the fact that there is a small tribe which has been together since the start – the first time I saw him live was at Green Man in 2013 and you could see, strikingly clearly, how unified the entire group were.
As the gig continued on, we saw more of the same – most of the songs felt as though they had been slowed down half a step and were lacking the intensity that draws so many people into the music of Ben Howard. Given the heavier tones of the second album’s songs, you would expect that to be present, but they all felt flat and lifeless – whether it was Ben Howard’s choice to slow everything down to avoid mistakes (there were a few when I saw him in Amsterdam last year) with the new songs, I don’t know, but it even seemed to apply to the songs that most of Ben Howard crowds go to see. Time Is Dancing, an absolute beauty of a song which should have a palpable life to it was slowed down and made to sound uncertain; it was uneasy.
In fairness, come the latter stages of the gig the songs did start to get to where they should have been, but that only served to annoy me further – if they were capable of doing that, which we knew they all were, then why didn’t they from the start? However it was too little too late, which is a real shame to say. Perhaps Green Man was too high a bar to set, because that performance that night saw all of the group (the original group) in untouchable form. Sadly, the two times I’ve seen him since then haven’t been anywhere close to that, and last night felt more like I had been watching a band covering Ben Howard songs more than the architect of the songs themselves.
Perhaps this may come across as harsh, but trust that if it does it is only because of the genuine disappointment I felt as a fan, something that appears to be echoed in the postings of others in the realms of social media. While I will still look forward to Ben Howard’s next release, I cannot help but feel a sense of disenchantment, as though the performance two years ago was the supernova and now we are getting the residual, gradually fading remnants of what once was. I sincerely hope not, and whatever differences have come between the original group I genuinely hope they come to be resolved, but ultimately it is in the hands of one man.