SXSW Review: Ben Howard, Daughter, Michael Kiwanuka [St. David’s, March 16, 2012]

Austin, TX – Nestled between the adrenaline-crazed beast that is 6th street and the increasingly popular Central Presbyterian Church, St. David’s Episcopal Church feels like an oasis for the sedentary and sane-minded. On this night at least, it was indeed the much more muted second cousin to the Presbyterian, where legions came out for Fiona Apple. In contrast, I had to inquire about the venue even after I got to St. David’s because the typical trail of shoe-gazing concert-goers were nowhere to be seen. I was initially apprehensive – surely the multitudes cannot have missed a good show, and so by extrapolation I have made a mistake. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later that I found out what was going on: 300 ppl were shepherded quietly in the hall, listening intently to harmonies from the Staves. The performers all stood on the same level as the pulpit, before a statue of the Virgin and Child. Lighting was spartan but effective. Not long after I sat down, Ben Howard came on stage to set up.

Ben Howard

Ben Howard, St. David's Historic Sanctuary

Singer/song-writers don’t blend well with a bar. We learned that years ago with Ed Harcourt. It was necessary for this night’s success that I be among a quiet crowd. It worked well for Audra Mae, and it worked this night. The atmosphere in St. David’s was respectful but by no means quiet. Ben Howard humbly introduced himself and set the course directly to Promise, probably the most muted track on his album Every Kingdom. Working with a skeleton crew consists of just a cello/vocal and percussion, Howard was effective in the immersive emotional experience. You can almost breath in the anticipation, burning ever slightly brighter than the candle-lit altar. Hearing the words “I lost faith in the Lord” in a church hall was arguably interesting and Ben himself expressed a minute dose of reservation. By the time he strummed out the transtions in his guitar during Old Pine perhaps 4 songs into the performance, I could hear many people around me singing in the pews. But then again, I almost did too. I never expected a full reproduction of the studio version of any particular on the album, but Old Pine was one that strayed the furtherest – a sign that he was ever so comfortable with the setting to take some risks, although it’s not for me to judge how many of these deviations were reharsed. He does look to possess much more depth than his 23 years. While his album Every Kingdom came out September last year in the UK, it is only hitting this side of the Atlantic in April 2012. At the end of the set, Howard invited all the other artists of the night to join him on-stage for a John Martyn sing-along. I wouldn’t draw comparison between the two as others have, however. Martyn’s voice and style is, IMO, so much more care-free than Howard’s, reaching almost a jazz-like state by the later years. This is by no means a criticism towards Ben Howard. He is a clear talent as clearly demonstrated by songs like the Fear and Diamonds, and possesses a good grasp of his audience and his own presence.

Ben Howard, St. David's Historic Sanctuary


Daughter, St. David's Historic Sanctuary

Of course, not everyone injects a clear dose of confidence into their performance. Outwardly, Elena Tonra, one third of Daughter, resides on the diagonal opposite of that spectrum. It does, however, take some comedic wherewithall to dead-pan the line “this next song is about death” right after a bashful “thank you” in front of a congregation of 300 and then continue as silently as the new moon gave way to the full. They apparently first formed in London after Tonra got tired of the singer/songwriter mould. Her voice navigates the unconventional ballads as effortlessly in concert as she was on the EP, even if it was a little less refined sometimes. Serpentine melodies such as those in Landfill and Candles resonanted well in those hallow halls, eerily similar to Sunday morning sermons emanating from the pulpit. Except they speak of much more interesting stories and probably carry fewer moral lessons. The guitar was a little different, as well, at one point using a cello bow to play his notes (I think it was for the song Switzerland?), gererating a different sound that seems to have its own harmonics embedded. If I have any musical talents I’d let you know why… Regardless of how it works, they were well-received by the audience. It is funny, however, the number of singers who caught my attention at SXSW over the years with songs about death. Maybe they were all trying to tell me something.

Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka, St. David's Historic Sanctuary

I had never heard of Kiwanuka before this point – I was actually about to leave after Daughter’s set. But a friendly reminder from the woman sitting right beside convinced me otherwise. I can see how some of the comparisons online are accurate. His voice is soft and uncomplicated, happily lacking the frivolous ribbons that singers from American/British Idols carries. Ricky had the same feeling back in January. But I think he’s still looking to that one song that can cement his to the annals of folk/soul fairytale. Home Again and I’m Getting Ready are both very solid starts, to be sure. They are at once modern, and yet both had brushes with the old-time charm. Home Again, especially, sounds much more folk-like in concert with minimal accompaniment compare to its brother on the album. I am certain the next album will bring some changes that will break the unnecessary contrasts with the older generation. Overall, this was a very simple night series of concerts that showcased spectacular talents.

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Reviews, South By Southwest