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Saturday 1 October 2016

Review: Ben Howard at 3Arena

> CHRIS WASSER

Ben Howard
Ben Howard

Right, who wasn't guarding the back door? It's the only explanation for Ben Howard's rapid progression from theatre halls to the gargantuan environs of the 3Arena - the earnest Devon lad must have snuck in while nobody was watching.

All jokes aside, Howard - a two-time BRIT Award-winning singer-songwriter with a pair of well-received albums under his belt - has put the work in. At least, in so far as large-scale folk productions go. This is about as lush, epic and cinematic as an evening with Sigur Ros. Alas, Howard is just as gloomy, too.

The latest in a long line of chart-topping, tortured troubadours, the six-string virtuoso makes an almighty, atmospheric racket in a live setting, and he's also got a sublime visual team on board. Methinks it's a distraction. The band; the enormous wrap-around screen; the ambitious arrangements - strip them back, and what do we have? Damien Rice without the songs.

Am I in Your Light? is the first murky, gothic number this evening. It's the sound of a man in desperate search of a tune. We'll get used to it. Howard - a wayward vocalist who should really work on his enunciation - is a lot better when seated. You'd listen to this chap play guitar for hours (clearly, he has that in mind). But again, those half-formed, largely directionless numbers need to improve.

There are a few memorable, marathon affairs. The gorgeous I Forget Where We Were could give Bon Iver a run for his money; Keep Your Head Up tells us Howard (27) knows his way around a catchy chorus. But there are too many lulls; too many fuzzy, scenic routes in which Howard piles on the reverb to make up for… well, everything else. Never has such a gigantic production sounded so positively dull. We're in the arenas now, buddy - the enigmatic, motionless minstrel shtick won't work here.

True, Howard is no ordinary strummer: this guy could hypnotise the masses. He already has. But it won't last, not without a few necessary adjustments.

Rating **

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