With his early success credited to a network of surfing music fans across the globe, wetsuit-wearing guitar strummer Ben Howard is now operating on another level altogether. At the first of a remarkable three nights at Brixton Academy, the Devon lad was met with so many screams Jaws might have been in the building.
Despite being one of the more forgettable names on this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, 25-year-old Howard has built his profile outside the usual industry channels. Like Ed Sheeran, hard gigging made him famous with the kids before the press had sharpened their pencils. An association with the Communion label, run by one of Mumford & Sons, has also given him a seat at the high table of people making “real music” while synths rule the airwaves.
In concert, for all the inaudible between-song chat and the presence of an equally silent cello, he was far from weedy, going electric from the off. Black Flies may have started slowly with the quartet on stage gazing floorwards but it built to a fierce climax.
With a huge full moon on the backdrop behind, the tuneful howl and shuffling drums of The Wolves was an upbeat highlight. Howard knew it too, stringing out the song’s second half to another crashing conclusion. At one point, he and the fans were simply echoing the word “love” back and forth. The enthusiastic, couply crowd joined in wherever possible, even singing the wordless melody of Old Pine back to him.
He had a more mature sound than the similarly unstarry Sheeran, less of the novelty value. Songs shifted around and changed gear unpredictably. He showed impressive musicianship with the complex fingerpicking of Everything. There were hints of Nick Drake, almost inevitably whenever the acoustic guitar was out, though I also heard Lindsey Buckingham’s Fleetwood Mac in the tense plucking and rousing chorus of Diamonds.
Doubts remain about whether he is memorable enough to be around for the long haul but his year-old debut album, Every Kingdom, has clearly made a strong connection with thousands. Now he needs to ride that wave all the way to the beach.