Monday, 17 December 2018

REVIEW: Ben Ottewell - The Wardrobe, Leeds.

I have been a fan of Ben Ottewell’s for 20 years and when this short tour was announced, I was eager to get to the nearest venue to review him for any potential new converts to this great singer/songwriter.

For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Ottewell began his musical career with the band Gomez, whose precocious debut album won the Mercury Music Prize in 1998. Their unique blend of indie-rock with blues and Americana influences managed to differentiate them from the crowded brit-pop market, whilst their up-tempo “manc-swagger” anthem ‘Whippin’ Piccadilly’ garnered them a mainstream hit that was a staple of student union bars across the country. The band had three lead singers, but it was ‘Big Ben’s’ rugged, bluesy tones that would define Gomez’s sound. Six Gomez albums and three solo efforts later, his voice is as uniquely powerful as ever.

In a triumphant anniversary gig of Gomez’s debut album in Manchester’s Albert Hall in spring this year, I could only describe his presence on stage as “a force of nature”, booming out his vocals with expert pitch and gravitas. But on a December Sunday night in an intimate venue in Leeds, armed only with his acoustic guitar, the audience were treated to another side of Ottewell’s musicianship. The Wardrobe’s venue is located under its trendy-but-friendly bar and fits about 400 standing punters, although for this seated gig, the audience was considerably smaller than this (perhaps due to his website inexplicably failing to promote his live dates). This is a good opportunity to stand atop my soap box to implore readers to seek out small music venues and watch artists playing in their ideal surroundings, such as The Wardrobe, which has unrestricted views, a decent bar, an audience of real music fans and perfect sound design to bring out the best of its acts. Even better, Ben was on hand after the gig to sign merchandise, chat and take selfies with fans. You don’t get that at festivals or stadium gigs!

The set opened with a few songs from his third album ‘A Man Apart’. Playing his ukulele Ben cuts an imposing figure that is somewhere between ‘has just finished marking a history assignment’ and ‘has been uprooting trees with his own bare hands’. His first couple of songs reveal his vocal skill, able to find a soft, warm timbre to notes in his ballads before effortlessly loosening the reigns and filling the room like rolling thunder.

By now you have probably guessed that Ottewell has a distinct voice that sets him apart from other singer/songwriters and it would be remiss of me to downplay his skill as a guitarist. He wields two acoustic guitars and the ukulele over the course of the set and regardless of his chosen instrument, he effortlessly blends complex, delicate finger picking riffs with flowing, full blooded strumming to construct songs that evolve in such a way that, unlike the output of many acoustic artists, you can never assume you’ve got the gist of them within the first minute, because there might be more to come.

As usual with a music gig, there were instances of people loudly chatting, as though the performer was rudely interrupting their evening, but my companions needed only stern looks to silence them. The culprit later apologised unreservedly, explaining that they were (loudly) agreeing to miss their last bus home because this was worth staying for. Hats off to The Wardrobe, even your noisy clientele are decent folk.

Another quibble might be the occasional mistimed use of reverb and echo on Ben’s mic, because it did distract a few times. However, it is the use of these effects that really brings out the best in Ottewell’s music. The encore demonstrated the range to his singing prowess, beginning with ‘Walking On Air’, a soft ballad sung with a real sense of fragility and then ending with the Gomez classic ‘Tijuana Lady’. This tex-mex infused ballad used the echo on the mic to create a mythic quality to the song, as though we were catching Ben’s voice on a desert sirocco. It was a finale that summed up the entire set and as my stunned companion put it, we were mesmerised.

Ben Ottewell still has upcoming dates in Birmingham, Newton Abbott and Liverpool and he is well worth catching before his planned hiatus to record new material.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 16/12/18

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