Jack Howard returns to the Stratosphere [Gig Review]
A Jack Howard gig is an entity in and of itself. A Jack Howard gig is a moment in time that, once passed, you wish for a long time to return to again. We've been to see him now a couple of times and this phenomenon has stayed true at each juncture.
Away from this, there's probably something to be said in parallel about how it's only possible to see Jack live and get new music in disparate nature, at best. For fans, it invariably feels too long, and for Jack and the band it probably feels too long too; eager listeners either way on tenterhooks. What makes this even more pronounced is the fact that, across his demo days, the unreleased songs played at gigs, and an Instagram story every so often playing snippets of a work in progress, you know that there is a treasure trove of really good music in the back catalogue waiting to show itself to the world. It feels so close and so far at the same time and leaves you constantly wanting more with his music, both from the studio and the stage. It borders a very smart commercial strategy.
This all means that whenever Jack Howard pops out and says hello to the big wide world - releasing new music, doing a live show or otherwise - it's something to get excited about. You know that come hell, highwater or the occasional rough edge, there's something that is about to happen that will do something special to your ears, oftentimes your heart, and every time to your musical taste buds. This show was no different.
First, the warm up acts - with thanks to Sam and Killing Moon for putting the run of show together. We started with THEO. THEO had an infectious energy when coming on stage, which was unexpected given a presence that began quite reserved, almost shy. There was such an excellent voice to be put on show, and her set demonstrated real skill in controlling that voice through it's levels too. She invited the audience to 'channel the energy' that went into the making of a particular song, and in larger than normal proportions it was successfully felt. Irrespective of whether the audience were in on it or not, there was a significant degree of THEO's intentions transmitted from the stage to the crowd - is there really a benchmark you need other than this to judge the success of a set? On the presence point, the stage didn't exactly feel 'filled' by THEO, and when artists don't appear to have command of the stage it can often come off badly, but she managed to create this strange and seldom seen dynamic where she and the stage were of equal standing - in a completely harmonious pairing. She didn't seem to need the stage-filling presence that we might expect, because that was part of the appeal and a reason why the set was enjoyable. We also particularly enjoyed the fact that, on mentioning a collaboration with Naughty Boy, she very casually sung the famous 'la la la' as if she hadn't just named dropped at the Old Queens Head an artist that boasts 650 million streams on their Spotify top 5. Highly rated.
Following the first warm up came Orlando, continuing the trend of artist’s names only upper case. ORLANDO is one of these artists that comes across dishevelled but actually has a very clean modus operandi. The bedroom pop sound that makes up elements of his music becomes even more present live, even to the point that the guitar solo's delivered by his performing partner, Ben Thomson, sounded like they might have come out of a bedroom too. We're very much believers that there is something musically very special about this sound, and it was sweet as ever. Because of the topics of the songs, and the way in which they were delivered, all surrounding a blissful ignorance of everything but those things in passing which seem important to us in our youth, we caught ourselves smiling at almost every song. ORLANDO established the foundations of a good relationship with the audience, but didn't have quite the grip that was needed, evidenced through the huge hum of chatter throughout the set, and the introduction of the guitarist aforementioned during a very good solo going almost completely unnoticed. It did feel like an opportunity there wasn't taken, both by the audience and the folk on stage.
And then, after a short intermission, it was time for the big man and the band to hopefully blow us away.
People were ready to cheer him and the band on before he was ready to get on himself. The audience, including friends of the band and fellow Brighton-based musicians, were visibly and audibly piped up to see the man perform, reflective of him and the band equally piped up to put on a show. We saw a situation where Jack Howard mixing in the crowd beforehand was feeding off the Jack Howard imminently about to be on stage front and centre, and Jack Howard on stage front and centre was feeding off the Jack Howard that was in the crowd moments before. The relationship between these two Jack's is explosive, in the sense that the things that come from it (his music, aura and general operation) often go absolutely stratospheric. In those moments, it's meant to be.
There's something striking about that dynamic of rugged supply and demand that sometimes occurs between an audience and musicians in front of them that lead to a buzz that can't be replicated by any other means. You felt that in and around the crowd. There was audience participation from the get-go in testament to the want for this very moment that has been bubbling up for two years, and made it a gig that really put into perspective the loss of live music so many people have felt during the pandemic.
The upstairs of the Old Queen's head is a peculiar place of performance. Outlining the room are large booths to sit in, with an airy floor to fill in the middle, followed by a stage it all directs to that will easily be one of the smallest a band has to fit on doing a headline show. A strange way of doing things, which led sometimes in the warm up acts to a sound that felt quite lost in the room, unsure of where to place itself. As soon as Jack and the band got on stage, though, this completely disappeared to a sound that filled every inch of the room - in overt announcement of themselves and what they intended to do.
The show felt strangely homely because that's what Jack's music does, probably even more so when you add on top of that the interaction Jack is allowed to have with people in the room that isn't possible through studio recorded music. Homely too because, behind the music, there are some extremely engaging, entertaining and welcoming personalities that go toward making the live shows what they are. It isn't just the performance when you go to a Jack Howard gig, it's also the extent to which you can feel part of something bigger that umbrellas over the music, the people making it, and the circumstances that led to that happening. It just feels that so much sweeter that the music on it's own is just so good.
The show, as all of Jack's live shows do, also presented a whole different side to his music sound wise. Whilst it's true to say that his sound may be heading into a more sophisticated, sometimes subtle, funk than the previous groove that was present in his earlier music, it is certainly not true to say that same orienteering has been applied to the Jack Howard gig. It was a big dance, shouting and screaming (lyrics and otherwise) encouraged, and the enjoyment for everyone on the stage and off was intense. It seems as if the band have crafted this happy medium of allowing the songs to take their direction whichever way they need to, but not losing the animation of enthusiastic spirit that could be a casualty of such a movement in direction. On the contrary, given the kind of show it was and how the audience received it, it actually seemed that enthusiasm had been built in very much on purpose.
And it wouldn't be the first instance in this gig of the band building the music with purpose. We saw Jack and the band use their setlist with a lot of thought, first using it as a platform upon which music was tested, with the delivery of that music being tested too.
But what was particularly interesting about the thought that went into the setlist was that we saw the construction of a 'sandwich' set, opening with audience favourites, putting the new, experimental stuff in the middle, and closing again with audience favourites. And, why wouldn't you? We've had two years where musicians up and down have developed, changed and refreshed their craft, and this needs to land somewhere, doesn't it? Although it’s fair to say this structure put less emphasis on the coherency of songs and their tempo throughout the set, making some songs back to back feel to have 'jumped' in that respect. But in the way that they do, it was made to work well.
It actually transpired that the new songs debuted were already so good and set-worthy that the sandwiching wasn't actually needed. 'Working Nights' - Jack's venture into disco - was one such tester and went down excellently, demonstrating a really clever placement of backing vocals and groove. It was one of those songs that can sound as beautiful in the studio as it did live. Very exciting, and was received as well as an old time classic.
Sandwiches aside, one of the many joys of seeing Jack Howard live is getting to see just how important the band are to making the show - and the music - what it is. We often see in some live performances a relationship that is purely transactional between the band and the lead, where the band plays the music, the singer sings, and that's that. The dynamic between Jack and the band, however, is completely different.
The thing that makes Jack Howard as an artist so distinct is this unwillingness to pretend to be the finished product. There are some rough edges that are just part of what you get with the music, that all eventually make up something special. When Jack 'embellished' his lyrics slightly at a couple of different points in the gig, it didn't matter at all as much as the career-ending mistake of forgetting your own lyrics we might see with other artists. When Jack, on the fly, changed the order of the setlist, it also didn't matter, and also still worked. A large part of why this happens is because those musical rough edges, infectious as they are, are then filled by a band that, in this role, becomes the cornerstone of the gig. In both of those instances, we saw some quick communication on stage, and a bunch of talented musicians just… making it work. Throughout different songs too we saw Bertie, Jack's twin brother, looking to coordinate and direct whilst the frontman was doing exactly what a front man is supposed to do - put on a show.
From Holly carving out moments in time - every time - with the sax, to Matty facilitating some massive groove (in the crowd and himself!), to Jed being able to keep things steady but add in such complexity on the drums, to Bertie getting the music where it needs to go in one piece - the band play off of Jack as much as Jack plays off of the band, and this is great to see in real time on a stage. Indeed, the closing song of the show had a setlist note to 'follow Jed's lead'. It's proper gig material and it makes magic happen.
You sometimes forget because this is a band that carries so much presence and talent that they're still paving their way, trying new things and figuring out as they go. It's another reason why people will tell you a Jack Howard gig seems to live and breathe as they do: it reveals so much that is human about really good music that would be otherwise hard to access. Whether it's reminders from a setlist constructed with the audience's musical welfare in mind, or the chats had with the people that make this beautiful music about the very fundamentals of life and human nature - these are people just like us that happen to have the ability to provide exuberant amounts of entertainment to those lucky enough to know where to find it.
It's because of this reason that the music is so infectious, that you seem to find a piece of yourself at home when going to a show, and why the next time Jack Howard and the band are performing live - we'll be there.