Ben Howard Brings His “Noonday Dream” To NYC U.K. Troubadour Captivates New York With A Cinematic Soundscape
NEW YORK, NY- When Ben Howard stepped off the stage after closing his main set (with “Sister“), a lilting melody emerged from the packed floor of Hammerstein Ballroom. The crowd, temporarily shrouded in darkness, was humming in unison the falsetto intro to “Wolves” from the British songwriter’s 2011 debut, Every Kingdom.
“Maybe next time,” Howard said good-naturedly as he and his eight-piece band returned for the encore.
It was night two at the historic theater in midtown Manhattan, and the last show of Howard’s North America tour. The floor was packed all the way to the back steps, and fans in the balconies perched on the stairs between rows of chairs, angling for a better view. There were many requests shouted out during the evening, mostly from Every Kingdom, which went platinum and garnered two Brit prizes and a Mercury Prize nomination.
Howard does not tend to cater to crowd favorites, though (something casual fans have long grumbled about). A Ben Howard concert is more like the sonic equivalent of omakase dining — we put our trust in the artist to shape our listening experience.
And that trust is well-placed. Rather than falling into the comfortable trope of the sad-eyed, dreamy English folkie, Howard’s followup albums to Every Kingdom charted a course to bleaker, starker lands — take me back to the catacombs, I am tempted by her love, he sings in “Evergreen” from 2014’s I Forget Where We Were, the sparse opening giving way to a percussive refrain. The narrator reminds me of a modern-day Orpheus, walking out of the underworld, losing faith and glancing back at his lover, only to lose her all over again
2018’s Noonday Dream takes us even farther afield in unexpected but captivating sonic spaces — the cover art gives us a hint of this, Howard’s figure swallowed up by a desert landscape, seemingly far from the comforts of the known. “Nica Libres at Dusk,” the lead track, combines contemplative clockwork guitar patterns with harmonized electronic vocals, the lyrical reference to a raptor’s flight (I watch eagles soar in circles perpetually) is backed by swooping synths. The effect is so hypnotic — indeed, so downright pretty — that we nearly forget to register the refrain with all its eerie portentions — the doors are locked while his companion reads the evacuation procedure out loud.
The recurring imagery of things in flight holds a dual meaning throughout the album, suggesting both freedom and the vulnerability that comes with being ungrounded — the butterfly with broken wings in “What the Moon Does,” or the bird in a world with no trees in “Towing the Line.”
The latter was the opening song of the evening. Howard sat facing stage right, hunched over a small MIDI controller, microphone held close. His physical presence, like the songs themselves, can read as understated, inward facing. But that introversion has an alluring intensity of its own, and Howard and his band are particularly adept at making the songs dynamic, with the swirls of violin and cello, accents of synths, the driving force of two drummers, and Howard’s voice, a dark quiet meditation with an animal fierceness within, coiling and at times pouncing in a percussive outburst.
From the vantage point of the pit, we could see every minute shift in expression — every furrow of the brow, the nearly imperceptible bob of the head in instrumental interludes, the concentration in the slight curl of the lip as he fingerpicks his way through open tunings.
The setlist was dominated by songs from Noonday Dream, along with a few recently-released singles (including “Hot Heavy Summer,” recorded with Sylvan Esso), and a few offerings from I Forget Where We Were.
The shifting visuals projected behind the stage were an apt accompaniment, intriguing and disconcerting. A man and his long shadow stands under an archway, occasionally pivoting to look in a different direction, yet he seems to be neither coming nor going. Two lonesome travelers are dwarfed by the Iberian landscape. Fiery streaks of red light slice the stage in the discordant buildup of “The Defeat,” a standout track on the album that pulses with tension in counterpoint to the sardonic insistence that the world is at ease, don’t you see?
Noonday Dream is filled with these sorts of delicious details. The calm seas that greet us in A Boat To An Island Pt. 2/Agatha’s Song — spare drumwork and dreamy reverb — nevertheless concludes with a thorny kind of false dichotomy — must we choose between being kind and being cavalier?
These are weighty things to contemplate in the course of a single song, and in Howard’s deft hands and the cinematic sweep of his arrangements, the questions take on a nearly unbearable lightness. The concert, like the album itself, feels like a fever dream, navigating an uncertain course within one’s self, shape-shifting like “Murmurations” of starlings in dramatic flight.