Breaking Heart-strings with a Broken Hand

Seeing the chandeliered interior of the Orpheum Theatre fill its seats with hoodie-clad, tattooed under-30s on Wednesday night was a strange sight indeed. The sheer majesty of the place seemed to evoke a respectful manner from the audience that I feel would normally be lost amongst the sticky floors and broken toilet doors of the usual dark dives that call themselves venues. Ben Howard even joked about the decadent ceiling art being something he wasn’t expecting to encounter on tour, paying homage to the poor guy that busted his neck out trying to paint it.

The modest singer-songwriter was so overwhelmed by the euphoria that he evoked, that you wouldn’t have guessed his debut album Every Kingdom had been nominated for an Ivor Novello Album Award only a matter of  hours before. This is, however, just the cherry on top of what has been a phenomenal few months for Howard. The humble lad from the English beachside county of Devonshire has seen himself on a sudden rise to fame. Having received a Mercury Prize nomination at the end of 2012 and two Brit Awards for Best Breakthrough Act and Best Male Solo Artist this February, he’s decided to try his luck with us across the pond. If Wednesday’s reaction was anything to go by, he has certainly succeeded.

The grand venue proved intimidating for Howard’s support act Tom Curren however, who despite being a seasoned performer in the California surf scene, didn’t raise his eye line to the balcony once. The surfing legend didn’t hang about in getting the show on the road though, striking the first note the minute the lights came up with a half-empty auditorium and not so much as a hello. Enthusiastic bass player Chris Swann commanded the stage for the first few numbers, bopping up to the front with his funky reggae-inspired bass lines and positive stage presence.

Coming into his own during the instrumental sections, Curren proved himself a skilled guitarist whose summery folk-rock draws influence from classic rock and country with added hints of reggae and funk, providing each track a distinctive sound to complement his lyrics of positive nostalgia. The final three songs “Plain View”, “Summerland Road”, and “You and You Alone” were particularly loved by the audience, who had just started to get into the swing of things when the short set came to a close. I’m unsure whether Tom Curren will ever be as successful in the music industry as he was in the ’80s and ’90s surf scene, but with a bit of finesse regarding the performance element of his show, he definitely has a good shot.

Having publically supported his friends by sitting stage right for the entirety of Curren’s set, Ben Howard later took to the spotlight to give a demonstration in masterful performance style and stage presence. Appearing in an umber pool of light to the haunting tones of “Burgh Island”, a chill washed over the audience as Howard’s echoing, angst-ridden voice filled the dark auditorium. Soft crashing symbols resonated like waves and I couldn’t help smiling for the feeling that I was experiencing something truly magical.

He was joined as usual by skilful cellist and bassist India Bourne and producer/musician Chris Bond, along with two other band members, all of whom seamlessly switched instruments in between numbers. The piano-organ adopted for “Oats in the Water” brought a sombre theatricality which, in combination with the noir moon-like multimedia display behind them, perfectly captured the dark and moody essence of Howard’s latest Burgh Island EP. The eerie tune soon exploded into an electric storm that sent the crowd from a hypnotized lull to wild excitement.

The uplifting “Diamonds” then led the way into the familiar melodic calm of “Old Pine” and onto Howard’s standout hit “Only Love”, for which the audience joyfully joined in. Playing live, Howard displays a controlled husky depth and passionate power to his voice that isn’t captured through recording, and it was during “Gracious” and the slow build-up of “Black Flies” – jokingly referred to by Howard as “another depressing ballad” – that his ability to control the room really came into play.

“The Wolves” got absolutely everybody on their feet and singing an ongoing echo of “love, love, love”. There certainly was a lot of love in the room, with people linking arms and swaying as if at some world peace concert. Howard quickly raised the tempo into “Keep Your Head Up”, with charisma and energy exuding from his twitching feet as the balcony nearly buckled under the strain of the sold-out audience’s dancing.

In a brief conversation with the audience, Howard revealed that he’d been playing with a broken bone in his hand all evening, having injured himself at the first weekend of Coachella festival. He was showered with praise by all in attendance for being a “trooper” and thanked for not cancelling the gig, along with the usual declarations of love that had been flowing throughout the night. The likeable Brit confirmed that it was unlikely for him to return to the Californian festival for the second weekend, but that he was glad to have come to Vancouver to receive what he described as an amazing and “rare” reception.

The show briefly picked up again with an upbeat electronic rendition of his newest song, “The Burren”, featuring an addition of wavering guitar riffs, thrashing drums and strobe-like lighting. Finishing the show with “The Fear”, Chris Bond on drums threw one of his sticks into the air in exhilaration when the crowd went wild at the first sign of the song’s distinctive intro. An encore was practically begged for, with the distant hum of “The Wolves” emitted from the audience causing the talented bunch to reenter the stage for one last bow together before performing the beautiful “Promise”.

An amazing night had by all was confirmed when India later tweeted: “LOVED THAT SHOW! What an amazing, hair-raising audience. You blew us away.”

Well thanks India, but you all blew us away and captured the hearts of Vancouverites in doing so.