If you were at GrandWest Casino last Wednesday night, you’d certainly have noticed something important was happening. Queues of young girls, occasionally accompanied by young boyfriends, were nervously standing in long lines to see Ben Howard, and score a pre-concert beer. The voltage of a long-anticipated, well-deserved, special night out was strongly felt.
The event opened with a pleasant surprise. Bye Beneco – a Johannesburg band – filled the hall with droning chants, combatant beats and chillingly peculiar clangs. It was something of a new-fashioned, tribal opera – a myriad of sounds, exotic and familiar, meshed into a steady beat machine. The name of their single ‘Cosmic Ocean’ from their debut EP, Overwhelm, is kind of fitting of their style. Perhaps ‘cosmic jungle’ would be even more accurate. Brave-as-a-martyr drums, bouncing rattles, high-pitched xylophones, electric riffs, metallic vocals – like serenading shebots were playing hide and seek in a fluorescent primaeval forest where trees have eyes.
After Bye Beneco’s colourful music mosaic, Ben Howard opened with a moody tune, defining the tone for a mellow set. Reminiscent of the uncanny sound halls of Pink Floyd, he created a melancholic backdrop for all the young lovers. The eeriness was embellished by an impressive light display. Grand Arena turned into a cave, hollowed out by echoing howls and neon lights. Accompanied by a band of panoptic sounds that sailed beside his soft voice at equal pace, Howard put his inner ache and affection into song for all of us to see. When he played ‘I Forget Where We Were’ or ‘Black Flies’, the crowd cheered in the first few seconds. Everyone felt with him, through each chord and each emotion.
The collective deep-feeling was put to an end when Howard broke into the more upbeat and folksy ‘The Fear’. Everyone knew it, of course, and – if only for a while – the atmosphere was uplifted. With cathartic relief, feet stepped sideways, heads bopped back and forth, and hips succumbed to a twist. Real joy came, however, when Howard complied with the we-want-more pleas of a mesmerized audience and played not one, but two encores – without being asked twice.
His benign attitude, heartfelt vehemence and all-enveloping sound warmed Cape Town’s winter-chilled soul – even if we only danced once, but then nobody expected to rock’n’roll.
Ben Howard performed at the Grand Arena on 22 & 23 July 2015.