Ben Howard + Wye Oak @ Bell Centre – October 6th 2018

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I’ve always thought of the Bell Centre as an intimidating place for music for performers and crowds alike. It’s not an inhospitable venue, but it is a big one in size and in stature – and it always seems like the musicians who take the stage have a double challenge of filling the space with sound and presence. But on Saturday night, Ben Howard and Wye Oak succeeded on both counts by bringing buckets of carefully-crafted atmosphere to the cavernous arena.

Wye Oak opened the proceedings, thanking the half-occupied General Admission floor and quiet seats for coming early. I was particularly curious to see how the Baltimore act, a multi-instrumentalist duo of Jenn Wassner and Andy Stack, would scale up to the home of the Habs. But here, augmented by a bassist third, the band quickly coaxed a polite crowd to applause and appreciation with buoyant rhythms, wet 80s guitar tones and samples, and Wassner’s life-giving vocals.

I’ve been a fan of Wye Oak since 2011’s breakthrough record Civilian, but never got the chance to see them live. While many questioned their decision to exchange electric guitars for electronics on follow-up Shriek, it was a treat to follow a band as they mastered one mode and explored uncharted waters. Today, touring their recent release The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs and opening with album standout “Lifer”, I was happy to see that Wye Oak confidently and immediately blend all of their styles and skills into a tight 45-minute sea of sound.

Wye Oak plays music that makes you feel like you’re floating out on the ocean. Sometimes the waters are peaceful and bouncy with bubbling keyboards and circular arpeggios, and sometimes those waves get gnarly with guitar shredding. Either way, they closed the set with momentum and poppy guitar riffs, speeding away with the crowd from wherever we’d temporarily dropped anchor and triumphantly traveling to the next destination.

England’s Ben Howard continued the journey, taking us from open waters to the misty plateaus of an undisclosed location. Standing before a rocky/sandy projection backdrop (evoking the jacket of his new record Noonday Dream) and an 8-piece band (including two drummers, violin, and cello), Howard began with the slow burn of the aptly-named “A Boat To An Island On The Wall”. Smoke machines, bowed strings, and echoey synth are all texture and backdrop to Howard’s folky guitar and vocals, which occasionally evoke the tones of Jim James (My Morning Jacket) or Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit).

Howard is all about mood. Songs like “Nica Libres at Dusk”, “Towing the Line”, “Small Things” are glacial and pastoral, without ever sounding too ponderous – like The Tallest Man on Earth at a gloomy Sunday brunch. Other tunes have no trouble getting tapping toes and bobbing heads from the crowd, like the darkly groovy “The Defeat” and the “Reckoner”-cribbing drums of “Someone in the Doorway”. But even through the straightforward uptempo of “Rivers in Your Mouth”, Howard’s vibe is content to stay firmly planted in the shadows and the druidic, leaving room for the occasional searing guitar solo or emotional flare-up. Call it Stonehenge Coachella, if you like (which I guess is just Glastonbury?).

Although one notably angry bathroom critic would have you believe otherwise (passionately lamenting that Howard no longer plays old songs like “Only Love”), the crowd was polite and appreciative, quietly swaying and soaking in the atmosphere during the songs. I was, however, able to pick up chatter from fans that were surprised to see such a large setup for Howard’s quiet folkster vibe – particularly with the string section and the lighting rig, which positioned a series of poles across the two levels of the stage like bare trees, adorned with lamps that slid up and down in unison. But even so, every piece came together to create the perfect mood in the dark arena. When the lights came up after an encore of “Another Friday Night” and “Hot Heavy Summer” and the spell of the atmosphere finally broke, audience members rubbed their eyes and left the Bell Centre with smiles on their faces to step back out into the chilly city night.

Ben Howard setlist:
1. A Boat to an Island on the Wall
2. Agatha’s Song
3. Nica Libres at Dusk
4. Untitled
5. The Defeat
6. Someone In the Doorway
7. Towing the Line
8. Small Things
9. Rivers in Your Mouth
10. What the Moon Does
11. There’s Your Man
12. Murmurations
Encore:
13. Another Friday Night
14. Hot Heavy Summer

Review – Dan Corber
Photo – Steve Gerrard

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