With a hectic evening planned either side of this gig, it was unnerving to find multiple ‘Door’ and ‘Show’ times online when searching for Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s visit to Bath. Given that I’d previously missed a chance to investigate why he’d been mentioned so often in conversations and the media over the past few months, I really wanted to make the most of tonight’s opportunity.
Arriving at the venue, I was pleased to see that there was a lot of milling around in the foyer, a clear indication that we hadn’t missed any of Ben’s performance. We moved into the regal main room of Bath’s ‘Komedia’, a tastefully renovated, Grade-1 listed building (formerly the West of England’s first ever cinema), then weaved our way to the front of the lower floor.
Catching the end of a set by ‘Fossil Collective’, we enjoyed their warm, acoustic-strummed rhythms and soaring vocals. Whilst they didn’t sound especially unique, they produced an easygoing vibe during our brief introduction that certainly wasn’t going to frighten anyone away; they planted a firm enough musical seed for me to want to hear more.
Now expecting the arrival of 'BFL' following the departure of his support, we toasted our fortunate timing, thankful that he hadn’t reached the stage before we had. Keeping an eye on my watch, conscious that I had to dart away to another commitment in an hour or so, it was with great frustration to find the stage being set for another support act, rather than the headliner himself.
Annoying as it was initially, this negativity subsided pretty quickly with the arrival of the evening’s second act, Ren Harvieu. Backed by an acoustic guitar player, a 'cajon drum'-loaded percussionist and a chap playing a rich double bass, the building blocks were laid to create a broad backdrop for eye-catching Ren. Donned in a feminine, floral skirt with a punky leather jacket, she represented an interesting contrast visually, which quickly played second-fiddle to her more than interesting vocals. Her strong voice told great stories with a purity reminiscent of a bygone era, enchanting Bath’s ears, whilst her swaying hips and unique stage presence captured the eye. Interludes between songs revealed an unexpectedly vulnerable speaking voice, with an equally unexpected Northern twang; a stark and interesting contrast with her fearless and powerful singing. Having since looked for her music online, her personal journey makes striking reading, adding extra significance to an already impressive performance.
Following her set, which on reflection I was very glad to have seen, there was a brief period of downtime under the regal reds, deep blacks and soft golds that lined the high, arched ceiling of Bath’s Komedia. Beneath the historic structure, the young, affable audience milled politely, a few even sipping from wine glasses; this was perhaps the nicest audience I’d seen at a gig in years.
Joining his audience clutching his acoustic guitar, Benjamin Francis Leftwich looked easygoing in a casual, woolly hat and creased, grey t-shirt. Sitting down alone at the centre of the stage, he began playing ‘Pictures’, which elicited knee-jerk screams from the young girls in the audience, followed by an intense, enthralled silence as the song played on.
Setting the tempo for the night and offering a great snapshot of his sound and performance style, ‘Pictures’ was really enjoyable to watch. Soft smoke billowed around him as he played, swirling in slow-motion as gentle drafts blew it casually around the stage. Equally as dream-like as the majestic smoke, his lyrics and delivery seemed infused with a detached, artistic quality.
Following an impressive round of applause from the crowd, including a few different shouts of, “I love you Ben!” (one of which surprisingly deep in its pitch), he was joined on stage by a small group of musicians. The praise and affection from the audience continued, as it would for the rest of his interludes, with illogically excitable shrieks at even the most mundane chatter. Filling the silence between tracks as his musicians readied themselves, Ben announced that today was his first visit to Bath, and that he’d visited the local park; cue ridiculous squeals.
Getting back to business, Ben and his band started playing their first song together, forming a really rich sound that jumped out of the speakers overhead with an enjoyable spectrum. Warm bass rolled out over the former cinema, punching softly at my chest whilst the high-end of the electric guitar reverb rang all the way to the bar and back.
As easy a listen as it was, this was very much ‘Uni-soundtrack’ material, albeit with a more artistic, abstract quality than, for example, the similarly palatable Jack Johnson. Because of its middle-of-the-road nature, I doubt his music will go on to re-invent the wheel, though it’s perhaps already started filing it down at the edges, making it roll a bit smoother.
As the set continued, band members switched instruments freely from electric to acoustic, big to small and even ventured onto some cool electronic equipment that strayed from the traditional acoustic ‘singer/songwriter’ sonic template. Making some unique sounds, this was a welcome move that didn't sound too out of place, diversifying their performance against what I’d expected to remain overly similar.
Interludes were often minimal in their on-stage chatter, offering very little insight into the process and personality behind the intrigue of the songs. For most people though, this didn’t seem a huge deal and many a cheer or teenage shriek rang out regardless; if anything, the minimal insight reinforced Leftwich's detached, artistic image.
In a further twist to the unusual instruments employed, a freestanding and slightly haunting-sounding slide guitar was later revealed, devoid of any traditional body and played face-up, parallel to the ground. Fascinating to watch, it also offered incredible atmosphere to the songs, texturing them with further personality. Given that this could've easily been a one-dimensional acoustic set, the addition of the band brought alive sections of the songs which an acoustic guitar would’ve struggled to encompass alone.
Under the warm spotlights and surrounded by the cocoon of a mild-mannered Bath audience, the large stage and its multiple instruments felt surprisingly intimate, which suited the often intimate feel of the music. A tempo change or energy shift may have broadened the impact of the evening though, as generally speaking, there was little variation between tracks. That said, a Coldplay-esque crescendo of drums within one song powerfully upped the adrenaline of the performance a few notches, adding a bit of variety into a set which whilst intense throughout, had offered little 'excitement'.
The following song, ‘Maps’, fell back into the familiar, understated territory, though it came packing a bigger impact, brilliantly spellbinding the crowd into their most intense ‘pin-drop silence’ of the night. This silence continued until, at one dramatic opening in the song in which the room should really be gearing up for full emotional impact, someone sneezed with comic timing so perfect that it couldn’t have been scripted any better had they tried. The whole room laughed warmly, before settling back into Ben’s unruffled performance; he’d impressively managed to maintain his cool during the most unusual of interruptions.
As he wrapped his song up to huge applause, a delayed, “Bless You!” from the headliner raised another strong laugh, whilst hopefully relieving any possible embarrassment felt by the phantom sneezer.
Ben then played a few more songs cut from a similar sounding cloth, which quickly ticked by until my reluctant departure was due. Not able to see his set conclude, nor for that matter any potential encore or surprises that may have been saved till the end, I’d at least seen enough to know that I’ll be checking out his album and keeping an eye open for any future tours he does.
Criticisms of similarity across his songs and a lack of anything truly unique in his delivery ring true to varying extents, but his sold-out crowd bought their tickets for a reason. Whilst not the most outlandish or revolutionary of performers, Benjamin Francis Leftwich is certainly a good one; he swept Bath into a mellow, acoustic journey of delicate guitar and captivating vocals that caught the imagination of the room. For that reason, the next time I see him play live I’ll be staying till the very end.
7 / 10
Darren Paul Thompson
Photos: George Dallimore