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Those who fall under the grand umbrella of “singer-songwriter” often exude a similar aesthetic: dreamy troubadours with an acoustic guitar and a penchant for sensitive, lovelorn lyrics. British folk artist Ben Howard is an anomaly to this foolproof formula for commercial success; he prefers staying in the dark and allowing his music — a mix of lilting guitar riffs and raw vocals — to do the selling.

Currently on his North American tour, Ben Howard graced the historic Massey Hall in Toronto on Feb. 1. Montreal native The Franklin Electric, a young folk-pop band that is likely to impress you if you’re a fan of Howard’s style, opened up the show. A hybrid of Half Moon Run and Mumford & Sons, The Franklin Electric impressed with their charming stage presence and catchy, sumptuous melodies that included refreshing brass and string components (check out the quintet’s first album, This Is How I Let You Down).

Howard’s show, very much like his career, was an ode to darkness. His preference towards staying out of the limelight was evident from the start in a subtle but dramatic entrance. Surrounded by a five-piece band (including India Bourne, the face behind the haunting harmonies on most of his tracks), Howard was seated at centre stage and was barely visible. The stage was illuminated only by low backlight, and he rested in shadows as he opened with “Small Things,” a track from his latest album, I Forget Where We Were. The distortion of the opening riff reverberated around the concert hall, from the hollow of his guitar to the curvature of the ceiling, and delivered an ache characteristic of his introspective tunes. The set list was mostly comprised of songs from I Forget Where We Were, an album reflective of a darker, more pensive Howard, who embraces disappointment and heartache just as he embraces the shadows from which he performed most of his 100 minute set.

Few can argue Howard’s impressive musicality. From fingerpicking with stunning agility on his acoustic guitar to hammering out delayed notes on his electric, his prowess on the instrument is second to few, and his live execution is astounding. When Howard was the focus, you could feel the audience at the edge of their seats, afraid to move so as to not disturb the evanescence before them. Though the permanent tremor and vulnerability of his voice stood out, it is worth mentioning that the five band members who accompanied him worked together seamlessly. Perhaps one of the downfalls of Howard’s show is the little recognition towards his band; though the play on light and dark is a thematic success, it failed to highlight the incredible accompaniment of the multi-instrumentalists who shared the stage with him. While Howard had the spotlight on him despite the darkness surrounding him, his colleagues were, quite literally, shrouded in his shadows.

Much of the concert felt like a storm. There were quiet, vulnerable moments, but there were also loud, punchy tracks. In “End of the Affair,” what starts off as an ardent, acoustic tune turns into one infused with electronic beats and Howard seemingly pleading in desperation. The lighting very much followed the course of the music, with darkness accompanying more meditative lyrics, and flashing lights following the sudden thumping of escalating percussion. Eventually, all songs found their ending in a calm space, once again with the flashing lights a passing memory and Howard and his band shrouded in a reflective silence.

If you have a chance, be sure to check Ben Howard out next time he’s on tour. While his music may be lacklustre to some, he possesses a quiet strength that may surprise you in a live setting. A great live performer, he has a captivating presence and equally infectious music catalogue. If you’re a concert goer who considers a prime concert experience as one that focuses more on wholesome, gratifying music than on-stage banter, Ben Howard will show you the bright side of performing out of the limelight and in darkness instead.

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