Ben Howard + The Franklin Electric @ Metropolis, Montreal – 31st January 2015

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Ben Howard seems in a good mood tonight. Sporting some not-so-designer stubble, he’s often to be caught looking out into tonight’s sold out Metropolis, as the crowd sing every word of his songs, smiling and looking somewhat taken aback by the response to the music that he admits himself he didn’t expect that many people to like. In his homeland of England he’s currently selling out arenas, so tonight’s show could be the last time we get to see him in a relatively intimate venue.

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Before all that though, the audience tonight get an unexpected treat. Montreal’s The Franklin Electric could fill this room on their own but announced only hours before the show that they would be playing before Ben. As they take the stage, it’s apparent many of the crowd knew nothing about them playing and there are audible screams of delight, especially from the high female contingent in the room. The indie pop-folk collective are fans of Howard and seem thrilled to be able to get things warmed up for the night.

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Despite being relatively unknown outside of their hometown, The Franklin Electric perform like they’ve been doing this for years, and their multi-layered songs are surely destined for a bigger world stage before too long. A classic acoustic sound paired with story-like lyrics makes their sound timeless yet contemporary, following in the footsteps of bands such as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. Playing songs from their well-received This is How I Let You Down album, they’re slick and instantly likeable, with vocalist Jon Matte having a smooth tone that compliments the uplifting music perfectly.

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The band’s songs have plenty of light and shade, moving from contemplative and semi-morose to foot-stomping singalongs. Visually there’s plenty to look at on stage as the musicians fill every last square foot with a variety of instruments. Matte interacts well with the crowd but, being stuck behind a keyboard, it can sometimes all seem a little static.

They break the set with a nice little a capella, band members gathering around a single microphone, and, by the time they finish, anybody who came to the show not knowing this great local band, will surely leave as a converted fan.

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This was my third time seeing Ben Howard in the last 4 months, having recently been lucky enough to catch him in Paris, France and Wolverhampton in the UK. Only two albums into his career, he is already looking like an artist who’ll be around for a long, long time. In many ways, success seems to be somewhat irrelevant to him. You get the impression that he is truly making music that he cares about, regardless of how many records he may sell as a result. The outcome of this has given us some of the most genuine and affecting songs of recent years, and Howard has found himself creating something truly unique in the current music climate. His latest album, I Forget Where We Were, sees him in a darker place musically than on his debut, but it’s all the richer for it. Tonight’s set dwells heavily on his more sombre material, with some of his earlier hits being discarded in favour of new song, Quiet Me Down, or the starkly dramatic b-side, Oats in the Water.

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As he and his bandmates wander onto the stage the screams from the crowd are deafening. There’s an obvious sense of anticipation, with many in the room seeing Ben live for the first time. He takes a seat with his acoustic guitar and begins to pluck the intro to album-opener, Small Things. The audience go suitably nuts! “Has the world gone mad, or is it me?” he sings, accompanied by half the crowd. It’s a relatively subdued beginning but one that sets the mood for what is to come perfectly. The dramatic lighting on stage compliments the songs brilliantly too, and the sound tonight is rich and full. Time Is Dancing picks the pace up and encourages some movement and clapping from the crowd, before Evergreen brings things all the way down again with its gentle strum, reflective lyrics and restrained vocal.

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What you might call Ben’s happy songs are in short supply tonight. Keep Your Head Up, The Wolves, She Treats Me Well and Old Pine are all missing, despite a portion of the crowd repeatedly chanting the “whoo ooh, whoo ooh ooh” refrain from The Wolves between songs, which seems to irritate Howard more then encouraging him to play the song. Instead, it’s the dramatic and maybe more artistic music which he wants to concentrate on. He seems to have found a somewhat unique guitar tone that resonates through much of his newer material and, in my opinion, songs like The Wolves and Keep Your Head Up would almost seem an odd fit alongside much of the music played here tonight.

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I Forget Where We Were makes for a mid-set masterpiece, ably demonstrating where Howard’s music becomes most intense and affecting, with multi-instrumentalist and long-time collaborator India Bourne adding layers of percussion while Howard straps on an electric guitar.

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Banter and anecdotes are also mostly discarded. Instead, it’s left to the music to do the talking, with the occasional “thank you” between songs. Black Flies is one of only three songs from the debut album, Every Kingdom, to make it into tonight’s set, presumably because the darker tone fits best with the new material. It’s followed by Conrad, a song that receives one of the biggest responses of the evening and a true highlight. Some in the audience are visibly moved by the music as Howard sings “We will never be the change to the weather and the sea and you knew that…” He ends the main set with the hauntingly epic All Is Now Harmed. It reduces to a minimal rhythm, Ben nods his appreciation to the crowd and they leave the stage.

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If you’re a Ben Howard fan, you might presume that he’d be playing Only Love tonight. It’s a song that helped bring him to the attention of a wider audience and is one of his biggest hits. In fact, he’s rarely played the song on this current tour, only re-introducing it into the set very recently and, even then, still not playing it every night. Tonight, it’s his first encore, although, as he signals to each band member and then spends a while retuning his guitar, it may still be an impromptu addition, perhaps as a result of the aforementioned good mood. “Might be a bit fruity but here we go”, he says after tuning is complete. Predictably, the song goes down a storm, with a big singalong.

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Oats In The Water strips everything back down, with its almost-flamenco guitar, before The Fear ends the night in fine style, lifting the mood as everyone claps and sings. And I even spot some dancing. A rare thing at a Ben Howard concert!

Some may leave tonight disappointed that some of their favourite songs never made the cut but this is Ben Howard carving out his territory and defining himself as an artist and, as such, it’s to be respected. I, for one, feel he’s moving in an exciting and more interesting direction and, I suspect, one that will result in plenty more incredible music. I’ll be curious to see how these intimate songs translate when he hits the arenas but, for now, those inside Metropolis can rest assured they’ve witnessed a stunning performance from one of the most important singer/songwriters in the world today.

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Setlist:
Small Things
Time Is Dancing
Evergreen
In Dreams
I Forget Where We Were
Rivers In Your Mouth
End of the Affair
Black Flies
Conrad
Quiet Me Down
All Is Now Harmed
Encore:
Only Love
Oats in the Water
The Fear

Review & photos – Steve Gerrard

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1 Comment

  1. This is a wonderful article. Ben’s music was incredible and it was obvious that the audience was somber and pensive. I can’t wait to go back to another one of his concerts.

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