Ben Howard performs at the 9:30 Club

English singer/songwriter Ben Howard continuous upward ascent at DC's 9:30 Club.

WASHINGTON, October 1, 2012 –Musicians don’t always benefit from the “trickle down” effect. Just because an artists scores big time in one country – normally that artist’s native country, but not always – doesn’t guarantee success anywhere else around the globe. Artists can go through an entire career and only remain popular in one specific geographical area. But if they don’t get that trickle down PR effect and if the international audience doesn’t get acquainted with their music, artists who’ve sustained local or national popularity can find it’s a hit and miss proposition whether they can achieve this kind of popularity internationally.

If Ben Howard’s sold out show at the 9:30 Club is any indication, this artist is likely to fall into that coveted international “hit” category. He’s already huge in the UK and seems to be gaining a fair amount of steam in the U.S. as well. This is quite impressive, given that he’s only released one full length album, the 2011 effort Every Kingdom.

Part of the reason why Howard is starting to see success in the U.S. similar to what he’s already achieved in the UK is because his sound and style translates extremely well to American audiences. Bands that find they have trouble crossing over to other countries have usually become too embedded in a local scene or are too genre specific with regard to where they initially achieved popularity.

Howard doesn’t have these problems. His acoustic singer/songwriter approach links him to one of the most relatable genres out there. While the niche itself may not be for everyone, it’s characterized by music that’s unassuming and easy to enjoy without being encumbered by any of the jarring components that fuel the ire of critics who take an intense dislike to other genres.

One problem, though. It’s hard to be overly original as singer/songwriter these days, an observation that several critics predicting the downfall of the genre’s relative popularity are happy to point out.  It’s also true if the artist in question simply isn’t talented enough, his or her performance can come off as derivative. Or worse, just plain boring. 

Happily, when a singer/songwriter can effectively relay knowledge and sincerity in each performance, that artist finds it’s easy to win over nearly any audience. And these qualities perhaps best explain the success of Ben Howard’s live set. He doesn’t necessarily break the singer/songwriter mold at any point during his show, or even expand on it. But he consistently performs at a highly professional and personally emotional level.

There are at least two aspects of Howard’s live performances that make him stand out, and both have to do with the kind of background he’s able to create for himself.

First, it’s somewhat unusual for an acoustic singer/songwriter to call for the accompaniment of a larger band for a portion of his set. You can detect this on Every Kingdom where the effect is somewhat subtle. But during his show at the 9:30 Club, the performance of songs that call on the skills of Howard’s backup band feel grander and fuller than you’d expect in this genre. Intriguingly, when the band takes a break during those songs Howard chooses to perform self-accompanied, Howard’s selections somehow seem to possess a greater emotional impact. They seem more intimate and personal, which has the effect of altering the atmosphere for both the venue and the audience.

The second distinctive aspect of Howard’s live performance is the impact of his own distinctive voice, which, surprisingly, achieves greater distinction when it’s accompanied by the full band.  His voice has something of an aged and weathered feel to it, probably due in part to the way he hangs on to each word he sings, which often gives his vocals a tired, world-weary feel without betraying his real life youthfulness. It’s this kind of dynamic that gives his songs that extra emotional edge. Given his vocal equipment and performing approach, he could sing almost anything and have it make an impression.

Ben Howard at this point is only 25. Yet his music conveys the experience of a man who’s much older. If a young singer/songwriter can leave his audience with the impression that he’s experienced a lifetime of joy and sorrow even before reaching his 30th birthday, it’s bound to have a significant effect on his audience. That’s precisely what Ben Howard is able to do, and his versatility and immediacy bode well for a long and successful career.

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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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