During festival season in Edinburgh, anything goes. Oxford students ride stationary exercise bikes, leafleters dressed as Victorian gentlemen heckle passers-by and opera singers cover pop classics for loose change on street corners.
Yet only meters beneath the chaos, in a dark, stony basement, Ben Howard saunters onstage looking refreshingly normal in jeans and a black t-shirt. His audience – a cosmopolitan mix of tourists, locals and the profanity-spouting Big Brother 7 winner, Pete Bennett – are packed together tightly. Charmingly, a chuffed smile of surprise at his success in gathering such a large crowd fleetingly registers on Ben’s face before his set begins.
He opens with ‘London’ – an understated, lyrically emotive break-up song about the departure of an ex-girlfriend to Paris. Suddenly, the cramped conditions in the room don’t seem so strange. Not only does Ben give a flawless musical performance, but he also appears to relive the pain he expresses in the song, particularly during the climactic lines “I hope Paris is as beautiful as I’ve been told/And that everything you do is galvanised in gold”.
‘London’ is followed by ‘These Waters’, which is technically impressive, but no less emotionally powerful. Although the set isn’t perfect – crowd-pleaser ‘Old Pine’ fails to live up to the liveliness of the studio version – it is only a minor disappointment, and ‘Keep Your Head Up’ more than compensates in optimism and fullness of sound. In fact, this song highlights the progression in Ben’s musical career. What began as a calm voice-and-guitar tune has become an uplifting spine-shaker, largely thanks to the vocal harmonies and musical accompaniments of cellist India Bourne and drummer Chris Bond.
The tone of the night can be summarised by ‘The Wolves’, which begins softly with rich harmonies but crescendos to outbursts of “love love love” playfully being exchanged between artist and crowd. The room is left to revel in Ben’s sublime performance. Clearly, this is a man who does not need flashy outfits, wacky stunts or a prime spot on the Royal Mile to make people want to pay to see him.