Review: Ben Howard at 3Arena
> CHRIS WASSER
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.