The poster boy for the UK alt-folk movement is upgraded to the Waterfront Hall. Ria Maguire squints through the smartphones
On the final day of what has already been a mighty Belfast Music week, a cold November evening is soon to be warmed up by English songwriter Ben Howard performing at the Waterfront Hall. But not before a support slot for the American, Willy Mason, who plays a strong set, his trademark weighted but effortless vocal delivery reminiscent of Johnny Cash with a shade of Bob Dylan.
A particular highlight at the top of the show is the worldly-wise and lyrically probing We Can Be Strong – the refrain dances around my head for the entirety of the subsequent 40 minute interval – yet Mason often plays second fiddle to the conversations going in the crowd. They are here, after all, to see the poster boy for the UK alt-folk movement in 2012. Willy Mason is but a distraction.
Howard finally takes to the stage with a wave and a smile. He is, one suspects, a humble and charming man, whose golden locks and laid-back demeanour are more reminiscient of a surfer dude than a middle-class boy from Devon. Yet Howard is currently a force to be reckoned with in the UK music scene, having been embraced and nurtured by some of the nation’s most influential mainstream radio DJs in recent months.
A simplistic and beautifully lit backdrop provides a canvas for familiar projected imagery of the sea as Howard opens with a track from his new EP, The Burgh Island. Here, and throughout the concert, he proves to be a sensitive guitar player, whose choice of tuning complements his gentle but memorable melodies. Howard's voice shines too, and in a venue as large as the Waterfront, that is the mark of a true performer.
Yet during 'Black Flies', a personal favourite of mine, something is lost. I miss the osmotic intimacy that a smaller venue would provide. But then I guess being sandwiched between a girl who constantly complains about her stiletto injuries, and another who bombards the band with proposals of marriage, isn't the best environment in which to lose oneself in the music.
Howard is joined throughout by his long-standing bandmates Chris Bond and India Bourne, as well as an additional guest guitarist, and it is at times astonishing to watch these multi-instrumentalists perform. At one point, Bond not only beats the drum kit in front of him, he also plucks a bass guitar. His colleagues are also in constant motion, switching instruments between strings, keyboard and percussion, as well as providing swells of vocal harmonies.
Howard includes crowd favourites from his 2011 album Every Kingdom, such as 'Old Pine', 'Keep Your Head Up' and 'Only Love'. As a songwriter, he has a knack for allowing a melody to gently build over the space of an entire song. But where Howard is obviously a confident artist, his skills as a raconteur are perhaps less impressive. At one point, he jokes, 'I’m telling stories; I must be drunk.'
The music industry's current obsession with alt-folk acts like Ed Sheeran and Ben Howard has been both a help and a hindrance to them as artists. Major label deals come with huge promotional packages, and therefore album sales – which is great for the artist, but not so much for the diehard fans who have followed them from the start.
Initially, this gig was to be hosted in the Mandela Hall at Queen's University, but due to high demand following Howard's recent live performances on the likes of Radio 1, was relocated to the larger Waterfront Hall. Tickets sold out once again. Standing during the performance, I try to catch a glimpse of Howard through a sea of smartphones. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what Howard and his band signed up for when this tour was planned.
At one point Howard sings, 'I will become what I deserve.' If he defines success by the amount of teenage admirers loitering by the stage door after a gig, then he is most certainly on his way. However, with the suggestion of a darker, moodier tone coming through on his last EP release, I suspect that Ben Howard is aiming to move beyond the balladeer brand that he currently personifies so well. I'll be there with the diehards, listening to the progress of a songwriter at the top of his game.