Ben Howard isn’t much of a talker. The closest thing we get to any kind of audience interaction during his new global stream performance is a small ditty about the weather at Goonhilly – the satellite earth station in Cornwall where Howard and his band have set up shop to debut a collection of tracks from Howard’s fourth album, ‘Collections from the Whiteout’.
That album is a patchwork collage of news headlines and everyday observations; a bold, somewhat experimental mishmash of his sound, old and new. It makes sense, then, to take the blank canvas of a livestream (and a year into the pandemic, there’s hardly any choice) and turn it into something more curious and cinematic.
‘Sage That She Was Burning’ – one of the most dumbfounding tracks of the new record – switches the gears of this “live” show after a traditional opener. The aspect ratio shifts, frames are superimposed, colours distorted, perspectives warped. It’s jarring at first to see a performance – billed as a live one – packed full of tweaks and cuts and filters. Quickly, though, the approach makes sense, enhancing the unruly sound of the record.
Howard’s confidence grows as the set progresses – ‘Far Out’ sees every musician at their warmest, the cold wind picking up dust from the ground of a chilly spring day, and taking on the appearance of a summer evening’s breeze. ‘Sorry Kid’ also finds everyone on the same page. It’s the sort of track you could imagine a crowd fully vibrating along to, at the peak of their energy after a half hour of getting to know the tracks.
The show’s aesthetic, directed by Allan Wilson, occasionally veers into Windows Movie Maker territory (he loves a negative image effect, does Wilson) but it keeps the stream vibrant. You never quite know when the camera will stay put on Howard (which it does for the wonderfully stripped back ‘Rookery’, to great success) or when it’ll wander elsewhere.
Where some shows performed to empty auditoriums have an uncomfortable eeriness, the Goonhilly gig makes the most of the wide open space, and has fun with its setting. It’s deliberate, almost poetic, to feel a bit disoriented – a sensation that Howard leans into even further when he closes with ‘Collections from the Whiteout’s opening track ‘Follies Fixture’.
It’s a great shame that this set, defined by the mounting atmosphere of such kaleidoscopic material, has to be experienced through a virtual filter. But if anyone was going to make the most of this medium, turning our umpteenth livestream into a time capsule and a concert movie tailored to our unstable circumstances, this is certainly the way to do it.
Ben Howard played:
‘The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell’
‘Sage That She Was Burning’
‘What a Day’
‘You Have Your Way’