SXSW Showcase Reviews
Ben HowardSt. David's Historic Sanctuary, Friday, March 16
"It's a real trip to come out of that carnage into someplace really quiet," marveled Ben Howard to the reverent sanctuary crowd, yet midway through the breakout UK songwriter's set, his acoustic jams had erupted the pews in ecstatic response. The trio opened with "Promise," Howard's harmonies with cellist/bassist India Bourne establishing a meditative hum that swooned into powerful swells à la Damien Rice. "Black Flies" from last year's excellent debut, Every Kingdom, carried a devastating weight in the hallowed hall's darkness, but "Only Love" and "Old Pine" both brought standing ovations as Howard's tenderly unfurling warble leapt atop a deep, wounding bass. The beauty of Howard's songs lies in the delicately uneven phrasing, the play between gently held notes and the rush of lines tumbling forth as if unable to be repressed. Closer "Wolves" exemplified the dichotomy, the poignancy giving way to red-faced howling and a call-and-response with the audience that flowed into a stomped-out fury. Bringing out showcase mates Michael Kiwanuka and harmony-heavy female trio the Staves, the packed stage ensemble contributed to the apparent John Martyn resurgence by delivering a rough but sincere version of the folk legend's "Over the Hill," signifying an assumption of the torch among the new wave of talented young UK songwriters.