On September 26, Ben Howard took the stage of Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre and San Diego welcomed the critically acclaimed songwriter with even more enthusiasm than the start of Fall just days before.
Under a nearly full moon, he sat on a dimly lit stage, guitars and fog swirling broodily around him as the night’s musical tale begun with “A Boat To an Island On A Wall”. The opening phrase of the song: to care or not to care, would ultimately foreshadow the night at hand. Dressed in all-black, a 9 piece band included a trio of strings and two drummers. They appeared like silhouettes against a backdrop of textured white quartz, and the crowd braced themselves for the world class musicianship in front of their eyes.
Howard played “Untitled” next, a song that didn’t make the cut for the official release of his latest Noonday Dream album but is one he often chooses to play live. At this stage in his music career, he’s garnered enough acclaim to forgo the need to play into the popularity contest, whether it’s for the charts or the crowd. A stance that is evident in both the complexity of the new album as well as the set list for the night. The crowd made up largely of couples, longed to hear the old Ben they knew from the more commercial albums: Every Kingdom or I Forget Where We Were yet only two songs from the latter would come to fruition. Ben Howard doesn’t seem to be towing the line for anyone these days, he is playing (and making) the music he wants. There was no pandering to the young woman shouting “Play Conrad“, or even to the planned set list. With a wave of his hand amidst a transition, he pulled an ‘audible’, signaling to the band to scrap the next song. However, the night was by no means a Defeat for open minded fans who wished to take-in the kaleidoscope of moods and emotions that the music would provide.
There was a very personal vibe to the performance, like being privy to watching someone’s process their feelings through song, from sentimental to frustrated. Howard, still seated, sang mostly with his eyes shut, merely having a moment lost in song with his guitar. There was little acknowledgement of the esteemed band which included the likes of Mickey Smith (A Blaze of Feather) who held down the stage quite nicely, as well as the lovely India Bourne on Cello, who has a solo career of her own. The singer popped out of isolation for a moment to interject “That was the peaceful period, now for the restless!” as he stood up to play “There’s Your Man”– a song about watching someone you care for be with an unworthy match. The crowd released some angst towards the set list as they sang fiercely to “Small Things”, while the string section and two guitars conveyed the turmoil of a power struggle.
After slowing things down with the somber “Towing the Line”, it seemed as if the night short would be cut short and the band walked off stage. They returned for a three-song encore – ironically, one of which was “I Forget Where We Were”. The evening closed with the melodic “Hot Heavy Summer” off the brand-new EP. This duet normally features Sylvan Esso, and reflectively considers the affection and free spirit of a summer’s romance. The song wasn’t only timely given the equinox, it brought about the feeling of a loving embrace that left the crowd of lovers off on a sweet note.