Arts & Entertainment, Features

REVIEW: Ben Howard showcases his new album’s aesthetic at Blue Hills Pavilion

British singer-songwriter Ben Howard performs at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion Sunday night. ALEX DEL TUFO/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

In an endearing British accent, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter Ben Howard leaned into the microphone to mumble, “Thanks for braving the weather.”

The crowd packed into the stadium-style seats at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion Sunday night and were bundled up in puffy Patagonia jackets and sturdy wool scarves to fight off the chilly weather. But they roared in response, nonetheless.

From the back of the venue, a young man screamed, “I love you, Ben!”

On the projection screen behind the stage an up-close image of a grayscale rock wall accompanied the opening song, “A Boat To An Island On The Wall.”

At over seven minutes long, the song, which was the first single on Howard’s newest album, “Noonday Dream,” features a country twang that varnishes Howard’s familiar, evocative soundscapes.

Despite the lukewarm reception of Howard’s new album compared to his first, 2011’s “Every Kingdom,” the first seven songs of the concert were all tracks from “Noonday Dream,” which was released in June.

Ben, scruffy-faced and shaggy-haired, opened under a bright spotlight. Smoke from the stage mingled with the mist blowing in from the harbor, blurring the edges of his seated figure as he wilted over his guitar, still as a sculpture.

The lyrics to the concert’s opening song set a mellow, reflective tone for the rest of the performance, which at times featured confusing and vague lyrics. Swaying his head to the mild rhythm, Howard sang, “To care, or not care / To be your aware / In your absence they made your choices for you.”

The cover art for “Noonday Dream” is a monochromatic image of Howard squatting in an unknown desert, surrounded by crumbling rocks and dirt. This distinct imagery carried over into the visual aspects of the concert.

Images of yellow-leaved trees, viewed through a dark windowpane, were overlaid with a faded video feed of Howard performing on stage. Dusty boots kicked up orange dirt, and inverted videos of men in sunglasses played on a repetitive loop.

On “A Boat To An Island Pt. 2 / Agatha’s Song,” Howard spit out each syllable in hard, rapid sputters: “And I said to me, I would like to be / Someone kind over cavalier … Put a rose upon my table, dear.”

His purposeful enunciations dominated in the live performance, turning what on the record is a slow, meditative song into one much more forceful and intense.

Concertgoers ranging from late 20-year-olds to older, middle-aged fans stood up to sway under the kaleidoscopic, flashing lights. Intermittently, men and women alike would stand up to scream their love for Howard, who did not respond from the stage.

The loving exclamations from the crowd were a far cry from the tour reception Howard received in 2014.  

After a concert in Norwich following the release of his sophomore album, “I Forget Where We Were,” Howard stuck to performing music from his new album rather than his older, more popular music (such as his top track, “Only Love”).

In response, the audience was unenthusiastic, prompting Howard to berate them, calling the crowd “c–ts” and rambling about how his audience only wanted to hear popular songs, which he called “f—king boring.”

The episode rightfully upset many fans of Howard at the time, but after four years, the anger appears to have dissipated.

The audience Sunday night screamed when Howard launched into “Small Things,” which has over 42.5 million streams on Spotify. Guided by their enthusiasm, Howard’s fingers flew across the guitar strings during the song’s complex ending solo, which was filled out by an insistent and steady drum beat.

Howard’s artistic style has always featured rich soundscapes, haunting melodies and meaningful lyrics, but the goosebump-raising effects of his music were amplified during the live performance. Guitar twangs melted over the crowd like butter, lengthened by echoes in the grand space of the venue.

Howard’s vocal performance also elevated some of the drearier songs from “Noonday Dream,” such as “Someone in the Doorway.” The dazzling chords and elements of the track shone through the drearier overall aesthetic. It was almost reminiscent of the melody on the hopeful, rhythm-driven “Diamonds,” a song from “Every Kingdom.”

It proved impossible not to sing along to “Towing The Line,” as Howard crooned, “Love is in the early mornings / In the shadows under the trees … Down here I crow for you, you crow for me.”

The husky, soulful sound of his voice felt familiar and reaffirmed the idea that though Howard has grown and changed as a musician — favoring quieter, melancholic tunes over his older, campier sounds — he recognizes that the vibrant acoustics and soaring hooks of his past tunes are still his greatest strengths.

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