A lot has changed in the near seven-and-a-half years since Ben Howard released debut album Every Kingdom. Most importantly, for anyone in attendance for the penultimate show of his sold-out four-date run at Brixton’s O2 Academy, his music has evolved almost beyond recognition from that breakout work. Apparently consigned to history are the fuzzy-pop numbers that helped shift a million copies of the standout debut record and in its place on the set list are the epic, orchestral tracks of album number three, Noonday Dream.
A notable mention first for opening act EX:RE, the stunning new guise for Daughter singer Elena Tonra, who delivered some delicious soaring melancholy that felt utterly at home in the famous venue.
Opening with the brand new ‘Heave Ho’, released only that morning, Ben set the tone for an enchanting run-through of his latest, more obscure work, only deviating from the new album with the three-song encore featuring ‘Black Flies’, ‘End Of The Affair’ and ‘Heavy Summer’.
By any barometer, this was a remarkable gig. For one, it took Ben - hunched and withdrawn on stage - almost an hour to acknowledge the audience and even then it amounted to a few barely audible murmurings, so engrossed was he in his own 11-track main set.
Then there was the small nine-piece orchestra assembled impressively behind the frontman. For all the technical accomplishment of the performance, perhaps never in the history of O2 Academy Brixton could so little music have been played by so many musicians. There were some stunning visuals to accompany each track too, while the pre-gig pop-up in Brixton Village was a nice touch.
For those claiming otherwise on social media, this was a lot of effort and preparation for someone who supposedly didn’t care. And there was the rub, really, from the polarised opinions after these gigs. The expectations of some that he would just roll out the hits was wide of the mark, and that left an odd, empty atmosphere in a cavernous venue that has seen some of the best. In the absence of the popular tracks many resorted to talking through the songs while others just gave up and left early.
For all the furore over a lack of the ‘classics’, once he had committed to playing his new album in full, any diversion from hazy soundscaping to chirpy indie-folk would have just been weird. In all fairness to Ben, he has made no secret of his desire to move on musically and the fact this run of shows is named the ‘Noonday Dream Tour’ is a fair hint at what is in store. Simply put, if you had listened to any of his music over the past three years and given even a cursory glance to one of his rare interviews, you’d have seen this coming.
There are obvious questions over the unspoken artist-audience contract and where the balance is for a musician in respecting your crowd and doing your own thing, but for future some advice: If you want a feel-good singalong, don’t buy a ticket. If you want witty repartee and extensive interaction, don’t buy a ticket. If you want to see the upbeat soundtrack to your teenage years played live, then you won’t see it here. Chances are you won’t ever see it again, until he maybe makes peace with his back catalogue years down the line. If you genuinely enjoyed his third album, buy a ticket. If you want to witness a musician who is simply doing something differently, and doing it outstandingly well with rare scope and artistry, then buy a ticket. It’s absolutely worth it.