Banter and crowd-pleasing pratfalls have never been part of Ben Howard’s repertoire. So it wasn’t surprising that he should seem at home performing on a lonely hillside, framed by the dystopian silhouette of Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula. Against a stark background, he was a songwriter in his element.
Howard was marking the recent launch of third album Collections From the Whiteout with a gripping livestream gig. Though lacking shiny hooks or singalong lyrics the record, produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, leapfrogged Justin Bieber and Dua Lipa to land at number one.
This absorbing concert had the air of a cosmic hoedown at the edge of civilisation: a perfect reflection of Howard’s brilliantly unearthly pop.
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Early in his career, Howard was written off as another post-Ed Sheeran strummer. Actually, his musical antecedents go back much further. He was building on the dreamy noodling of The Durutti Column and the interstellar pop of John Martyn and Mike Oldfield.
Those influences were on display as he started the show seated and phlegmatic in the grey evening light. Flanked by a band that included guitarist Mickey Smith he opened with the wonderfully woozy “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell”.
Livestream concerts generally struggle to recreate the sweaty intimacy of a traditional gig. Here, director Allan Wilson didn’t even try. The performance opened with a swooping drone shot of Howard and his players dwarfed by the radar complex.
Having grown up in rural Devon, the singer understands nature can be beautiful but that it is full of death and decay, too. That ennui was soaked into the bones of “The Strange Last Flight of Richard Russell”, loosely inspired by the real-life case of the Seattle man who in 2018 stole a plane and promptly crashed.
Howard is an enthusiastic surfer but his music couldn’t be further removed from sun-soaked beach-bum rock. That was made clear with recent single “What a Day”, an outwardly upbeat piece that delivers a sudden chill when you realise it’s about mortality.
Howard can be self-serious, with a tendency to brood. So it was a surprise to see him cracking up as he fumbled the lyrics to “Buzzard”.
But unfazed he plunged into the closing double-punch of “Make Arrangements” and “Follies Fixture”. Both were gorgeously unsettling slices of rustic psychedelia. They bristled with folk-horror weirdness and a slowly rising dread.
Fans watching at home will have briefly had the disorientating feeling of being carried aloft to somewhere uncanny and mesmerising – but not entirely safe. It was a breath-taking conclusion to a concert that, true to the satellite station backdrop, beamed strange signals out into the great beyond.