Ben Howard: How Not to be an Audience

I wrote this review on my way home, feeling disappointed at Ben Howard’s performance at the iTunes festival, after moaning with my friend, as well as other vocal fans on the way out of the building. We hesitated leaving as he played just 55 minutes of a contracted 70 minute set, which a commenter told me was meant to include two old songs we had been craving.

However, amongst the commenters who agreed, there were a few that disagreed, and some that we very angry over this post. Although I think the swearing and shouty capital letters were unnecessary, I think it is important to admit where you’re wrong. I watched back at I had been wrong about the trace of narcissism I had initially detected. In fact, this had been a projection of my own frustration at not knowing the songs, expecting to be hearing old classics mixed in with the new, and my height meaning I was unable to see most of the time. When I watched back, I saw that the comments I had thought were rude, were actually bordering on the modesty I thought was missing: Howard’s face looked down as he laughed, as if unable to comprehend the crowd. The importance of body language, eh?

I was also wrong about interpreting him sitting down as lazy. I hadn’t seen him perform and was simply ignorant to his musical technique. In fact, the sitting down was to do with the pedals he needed to press. Other than that, my opinion still stands that the gig would have been better with a mixture of music, and with better audience interaction. So, point number (3) is out, but (1) and (2) still stand for me. Nevertheless, the feeling that I and many others got from Howard could well be to do with what another commenter mentioned: ” If you watch some of his interviews he has tough time dealing with fame and expectations, and that definitely showed last night.” I feel very passionate about mental health issues, and I would hate for my negative words to not be sympathetic to that. Perhaps what we saw on Wednesday was a man who was trying to put his all into it, but was simply struggling, having a bad day.

So, all this got me thinking about the audience, and how reactionary lots of people, myself included, had been after the gig. Some of these points were what other commenters brought up, and others were things that are linked to what I had been saying. During the gig, the audience were standing their like zombies, to the point where I was zapped of energy and was infected with the zombie bug too (plus, with the frustration with my expectations not being met). People nearer the front simply stood there, whilst other areas meant that people talked too loudly, seemingly uninterested with the gig. I think would have enjoyed the gig more had I been sat down in a quiet field with the music blowing through the wind, rather than stood up in building full of bright flashing lights. This happened when I saw Laura Marling at In The Woods festival recently (where I was also performing – yay!) I would have liked to sing along (which I approve of), but people were either silent or talking way too loudly. Music with beautiful lyrics like Marling’s or Howard’s deserve attention. Especially hearing songs for the first time, I want to really listen and take them in.

On this point is the constant need to capture every moment with a camera. I like to have a memento too, but I think after a couple of shots and maybe one recording of a song you love, enough is enough. Put the camera away and enjoy just being there. The most fun I’ve had at gigs is when you immerse yourself in the experience rather than trying to get a photograph that isn’t a big old blur of colours.

So, all in all, I have just three pointers for performers, and four for audience members, because, hey, I can admit when I’m not 100% right, and a gig is, as I said, a mutual relationship between performer and audience. My tips for the audience are as follows:

1.Talking through performances of singers whose music is lyrical and soft. (More so for poetry too!)
2. Constant filming and photography. Remember when you enjoyed just being at gigs?
3. Come without expectations. Or, as I have learnt, you will be disappointed.
4. Remember that performers are human beings, with all their imperfections and complexities.

Ben Howard: How not to do a gig.

So, I’m thinking of creating some tips for artists after seeing Ben Howard at the Roundhouse, where I was on the guest list after being part of the Poetry Collective there. Sadly I had this idea from a ‘what not to do’ perspective as I was utterly disappointed in Howard’s performance, as were many other audience members. Our only solace was a good old British moan afterwards.

A British lad, one might expect that typical dose of modesty. Actually, it looked more like this Venn diagram:

At times he was overly self-critical, saying ‘you know when you wake up and sometimes you’re not funny and sometimes you are, well today I’m not funny.’ Ensue sparse polite laughter (what this meant to be irony?) Yet, as he whisked through songs from his new album, he told fans ‘Is this how it works? You get free tickets, you get what you’re given.’ This felt deeply insulting to the audience; was our time worth nothing? I would have happily had a night at home instead of this gig, and goodness knows I needed one.

There would surely be people who travelled further than my hour-ish journey to see him. I had been waiting to see him for years and never been able to, and I had been listening to his old album in excitement. Yet, there was a woman in front of me who knew all the words to the only song he’s released from the new album, suggesting there were bigger fans than me out there. How do you think they felt?

Howard also spent a lot of the set sitting down whilst most of the audience were standing, unable to see. Some would have come straight from work, some spending money, no Ben, not on tickets, but on food and drink, and whatever else, to go to the gig. And he’s sitting down. I’m sorry, genuinely, do you have ME? Do you have an actual reason why you needed to sit down? The audience, whoever they are, came to see you. YOU! And you owe them respect if it really was such a privilege to be performing at the Roundhouse after being at The Enterprise a few years ago.

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My friend, Hannah, and I bought lovely beef chilli burritos and sweet potato fries for dinner from The Enterprise – that was the best part of the night. This sentimental comment from Howard just seemed contradictory and his point was made clear as he left the stage without an encore and no old album tracks. Do you think we want to buy the album now? Do you think we’re dying to see him live again? I’m afraid not. It may be fun for the artist to play all new material, but it’s about the relationship between the audience too, and whilst we would have been happy to listen to some new material, it would have been best to also play songs we know and love. Instead, the performance was alienating and underwhelming.

So, some lessons to learn from Ben Howard:
1. Give a mixture of what you would like to do and what you know the audience wants.
2. Put your all into it no matter how big or small.
3. Don’t be a dick: appreciate and respect your audience.