Ben Howard – review

Hammersmith Apollo, London

Whatever "stardom" is, Ben Howard is having none of it. No matter that the 26-year-old Devonian won two Brit awards this year (for best male and British breakthrough) and sold half a million copies of his debut, Every Kingdom – he's so ambivalent about the spotlight that he plays this gig in the dark. Scant exaggeration: for half the set, the stage is drenched in shadow. At times, it's hard to work out how many people are up there – musicians wander on and off, and the only constant is Howard, somewhere in the murk behind an acoustic guitar.

Comparisons present themselves. His finger-picking brings to mind José González, his sweet voice Ed Sheeran; when the intensity builds on new track The Burren and he's singing as if every note could be his last, the influence of his idol John Martyn is discernible. It's hard, in fact, to say what aspect of Howard is Howard's alone. His shyness, perhaps – it's not until late in the set that he speaks more than a few words.

Yet he touches a nerve. He has merely to play the twinkling intro to the hit Only Love to excite cries from the many young women in the crowd. The little lupine howls that kick off The Wolves inspire a girl behind me to murmur: "He's so sexy." But sexiness isn't the goal. Howard is the classic songwriting introvert, hiding in the shadows to play his love songs. As The Fear closes the main set with a battery of percussion and strobe lights, in a small concession to showbiz, he steps forward and blows a kiss.

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Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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