Live Review

Benjamin Francis Leftwich, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

An engaging, vital performer with true star quality.

With a note perfect solo rendition of the Radio 1 play-listed ‘Pictures’, his declaration of ‘good evening, this is going to be fun’ sets the tone before the rest of his band joins him onstage. Collectively they bring a rawer feel to album favourite ‘1904’ which sees electric guitars pushed to the fore and an extended instrumental segment in stark contrast with the stripped down opening. A smattering of warm electronic beeps add a new layer of loveliness to the contemplative ‘Shine’ with its aching call of ‘are you ready for love to carry you home?’, his lyrics somehow more discernible than on record, drawing you deeper into the unfolding stories. After the familiar opening trio we are treated to a string of new songs, all of which demonstrate real potential. ‘Maps’ is drenched in reverential silence, an acoustic tale of naming stars and distant adventures. Performed unaccompanied and sung as quietly as he could, it’s one of those special moments that you just want to bottle up and capture in a memory box for safe keeping. We also get the A Very Long Engagement inspired ‘Hole In My Hand’ and the well received ‘Manchester Snow’, both of which are very much in the mould of his debut LP but with an added layer of maturity in their musical and lyrical DNA.

Performed in it’s entirety tonight, there are a multitude of standouts from the aforementioned recent album ‘Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm’. A delicate keyboard assisted ‘Butterfly Culture’ and an unexpectedly full on rock moment during ‘Stole You Away’ catching the audience by complete surprise. There is an admirable spirit of reinvention at work with each track re-thought with a view to getting the best from it, creating a unique live experience that makes for more than carbon copies delivered in dark rooms with sticky floors. Whilst his humility and genuine appreciation of the warm reception afforded to him are touching there are also moments of humour, expressing his love of French actress Audrey Tautou and explaining how one song is about ‘men who work for record labels that are half human, human dragon.’ Critics who accuse him of lacking lyrical bite will also be hushed by the darker leanings expressed through ‘Bottle Baby’, one of the many songs punctuated by anecdotal stories as to how it came about. He also finds time for his now trademark take on Arcade Fire’s ‘Rebellion’, cleverly slowed down to semi-recognisable pace before a communal eureka moment mid song which sees the audience join in on backing vocals.

Following merely the briefest of exits he re-appears on stage to a thunderous round of applause. Launching into a rapturous solo version of ‘Atlas Hands’ he exhorts the crowd to sing at the top of their lungs before delivering a heart stoppingly beautiful performance broken only momentarily by the occasional female squeal. His band comes back on for a closing run through ‘Don’t Go Slow’, starting with gently soothing piano before mutating into a frenzied jam which sees the young musical troubadour bent double as if drawing oil from his beloved guitar. Despite a talented cast of supporting musicians, it’s Leftwich who shines through as an engaging, vital performer with true star quality.

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