I didn’t know very much about Ben Howard going into his show last Monday at the El Rey Theatre. I’d taken a quick listen to his latest album I Forget Where We Were and saw how quickly tickets were gobbled up to his one of two U.S. shows this month and was very intrigued.
What I didn’t expect was to hear just how full Howard and his band sounded. What I experienced was the kind of emotion that Damien Rice was able conjure out of me earlier that month.
Except for the few that chose to sing along to Howard’s mesmerizing lyrics, you could hear a pin drop while Howard played a heart-wrenching set. “Has the world gone mad / or is it me?” Howard signs in “Small Things,” a very Damien Rice-esque sound if it weren’t accompanied by a much fuller sound thanks to a five-piece backing band.
Among those in Howard’s band was India Bourne. This Jill-of-all-trades played bass, she played keyboards, she played cello, she sang backup vocals. Though the entire band was impressive, Bourne definitely left a lasting impression on those around me. Her backup vocals also perfectly complemented Howard’s melancholy voice — hers highlighting the ray of hope that accompanies the downtrodden words Howard has written.
I was so entranced by Howard’s performance that it took me a few songs to even realize he was a left-handed guitarist. It wasn’t even until he played the guitar in an unorthodox manner — his right hand fingering the fret board at an odd angle — that I noticed this to begin with. Though his finger-picking recalls Jose Gonzalez, his songwriting and appeal is a bit wider reaching.
Howard’s sense of humor during the set kept things light as he ripped people’s hearts in half in song. The encore featured a soul-crushing rendition of an earlier Howard track “Oats in the Water,” a song that had quite a crescendo. “Go your way / I’ll take the long way ’round / I’ll find my own way down / As I should,” Howard sings in the chorus.
A comparison to Nick Drake is an apt one, but Howard is pretty transcending in his own right. Howard took a moment to read a letter silently to himself that a fan had thrust onto the stage, following it up with a heartfelt thank you. There’s no doubt that letter was a hearty thank you for the songwriting of Howard, his ability to convey the feeling of having loved and lost.
Given just how impressive he was Tuesday night, it wouldn’t surprise if a couple more letters were sent Howard’s way when he turns back up in L.A. in February for a performance at the Shrine Expo Hall.
Words: Mark E. Ortega
Photos: Kaley Nelson