Ben Howard could be the most popular songwriter a lot of people haven’t heard of.
Friday night, Howard and his five-piece band sold out the Uptown Theater, drawing nearly 2,300 fans and delivering 90 minutes of music that was as mystical as it was melancholic, that plumbed the abyss and contemplated the great beyond.
Howard is a Brit who writes folk songs, but he’s no coffeehouse troubadour. He hunches over his guitar, strumming and plucking swirls of chords and melody lines and singing in a voice that sounds wizened, wounded and weary but perfectly captures the aura of his songs.
Several times, he used an overhand technique on his guitar, tapping out short blizzards of notes. His band included cellist India Bourne, who also played bass and added background vocals. Throughout the show, spotlights of various colors flared behind Howard and his band, casting them in shadows and silhouettes, accentuating the mood.
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He opened with “Small Things,” the first of several gloomy folk tunes that showcased his crafty guitar play and lyrics that express an ache or a void: “Has the world gone mad / Or is it me? / All these small things / They gather round me.”
He followed that with “Time Is Dancing,” a gust of dark, hypnotic ambiance that erupted into a storm of feedback and dissonance, then “Evergreen,” a low-pulse hymn that mourns the end of a romance: “Built a world without your love and I built it in me / Christmas flared amongst the somewhere cold deep evergreen / Built a world without your love, now I’m all out at sea.”
The mood didn’t change much from start to finish, and about 45 minutes into the show parts of the crowd showed some restlessness. Howard and his band kept monotony at bay with several dynamic instrumental climaxes — tension built and broken.
The crowd gave several songs rousing shows of recognition and approval, including “Evergreen,” “Conrad” and “End of the Affair,” a squall of noirish folk-blues.
It saved its biggest outburst for the closer, “The Fear,” in which Howard and his mates sounded most like a rock band and not a high-octane neo-folk act. There was some dancing during that one, and singing along — a show of appreciation for a guy who appears to be getting the recognition he deserves.
Small Things; Time Is Dancing; Evergreen; In Dreams; Conrad; I Forget Where We Were; Rivers in Your Mouth; Black Flies; End of the Affair; Quiet Me Down; All Is Now Harmed. Encore: Esmerelda; She Treats Me Well; The Fear.