At what point did Ben Howard decide It’s All About the Music? Probably at some point early in his career – in 2012 or 2013, perhaps, when the amiable single Only Love seemed to be everywhere, and he was typecast in the thankless role of Devonian-surfer-who-sings-folksy-love-songs. Maybe the 329th time he heard it playing over the PA in a motorway service station stiffened his resolve to be less like Tom Odell and more like Thom Yorke.
Certainly, there is a hefty dose of It’s All About the Music at the first of four big sold-out London shows. Howard’s microphone is set up as part of his nine-piece band, well away from the people who’ve paid to see him. He must be 15 feet from the lip of the stage, and he never moves closer to the crowd. It’s not about him, dammit. He barely talks to the crowd: four times in an hour and three of those are brief thanks, the other a mutter that one of his pedals isn’t working properly.
There’s not a chance of hearing Only Love; instead we get the whole of last year’s Noonday Dream album – heavy on lengthy atmospheric interludes – and a scant handful of older songs in the encore. Towing the Line is played in that traditional posture of the man who has a lofty disdain for the bagatelles of mere entertainment: sitting on a low stool, facing away from the audience. He dresses as if he’s here to borrow some sugar, no intention of staying, in what appears from a distance to be a blue mac. This is not a show for those in search of breathtaking charisma; to paraphrase the old joke about Clement Attlee: “An empty tour bus pulled up, and Ben Howard alighted.”
It feels, in fact, as if it’s rather too much About the Music. The songs on Noonday Dream meander, and they meander even more live: the opening Nica Libres at Dusk, a leisurely six and a half minutes on record, pushes on to 10 minutes, with both an extended ambient opening and an extended ambient ending. And those who crave extended openings and endings get treat after treat tonight. It’s noticeable that the only cheer of recognition in the main set comes with a brief and heavily distorted run through the chorus of Cat Stevens’ Wild World; only when the encore brings older songs do the cheers return, at recognition of the opening chords.
At times, what Howard is grasping towards takes shape through the ambient fog: when acoustic and slide guitars combine on What the Moon Does, or when the organ swells on Murmurations, those textures overlaid on restless drum patterns call to mind some cross between early 70s Pink Floyd and Four Tet, and one thinks there is fertile ground to be uncovered. But too often the textures are allowed to dominate at the expense of the song: where the heart of the songs should be, there’s a shimmer of treated guitar instead of something concrete. It’s like walking round a perfectly designed house, full of wonderful furniture and beautiful art, then realising they forgot to put in a kitchen.
The result is a show that feels oddly chilly and joyless. It is almost as if Howard doesn’t want to open himself up, something that comes through, too, in his startlingly blank interviews. But the great artists, the ones who are loved across generations, do offer themselves to the audience. They know it’s never All About the Music.