Benjamin Francis Leftwich @ The Institute, Birmingham – Wednesday 22nd May 2013


I really feel for the opening act of any show ever held in the Library of the HMV Institute. It always seems like the sound-guys have such a hard time getting the levels right, resulting any noise the first band make being entirely lost to anyone standing in the back half of the room. Thus from the balcony it felt very much like Siro – a sweet, all-strings three piece (think Manchester Orchestra meets Horse Feathers) – may have well have been playing at the end of a tunnel. A tunnel stuffed with pillows. With a noisy crowd at the other end. What little I heard I liked, but I couldn’t tell you much about it. Maybe Google them and see if they’re as good as I thought they might be.

Second support act Lewis Watson had more luck. Although I have to stop myself from automatically rolling my eyes at any young musicians wh0 frequently have to sweep their oversized fringe out of their faces, Watson’s performance boasted throbbing vocals and an excellent ear for strong musical structure. It might be easy to pigeon-hole Watson a just another in the wave of young, male solo musicians vying for the Ed Sheeran crown, but I would advise you not to. He might still blush with astonishment at the idea of Geri Haliwell following him on Twitter, but his songs have real heart and it appeared that many in the crowd had shown up to see him as much as the headliner. ‘Sink or Swim’ and ‘Into The Wild’ in particular seemed to stand out of the set, and kudos should definitely be given to Watson’s dextrous backing band, who – between the two of them – managed to create a real variety of dynamics, allowing the songs to be shown off to their best advantage.

As for the headliner, Benjamin Francis Leftwich: early listens to his recorded material caused me to draw comparison with acoustic rock veterans Shaun Mullins (but without the baritone growl), and maybe even Bryan Adams (but without the gravel). His live performance seemed to reveal something far more intimate and smoother than either of these stylistic forebears. As he stepped alone into the spotlight to open his set with ‘Pictures’, it occurred to me that this man must REALLY trust his audience. What’s more, Leftwich’s trust was justified: his audience maintained almost complete silence during each song – that’s some serious respect.

For a good portion of the show I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had stepped into a Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack. You can imagine my LOLage later when I discovered – in a fit of Googling curiosity – that ‘Atlas Hands’, ‘Don’t Go Slow’ and ‘Box of Stones’ all appeared on the soundtrack for Season 8 in 2011. All things considered, however, I shouldn’t really snigger at landing a spot on a Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack: whoever does the series music compilations has their head screwed on for spotting trends early. Across nine seasons GA’s showcasing has assisted in drawing the public’s attention to Sia, The National, Interpol, Iron & Wine, Nouvelle Vague, Ingrid Michaelson, The Cinematic Orchestra, Feist, Adele, Mumford and Sons, Kodaline, Daughter… etceterah, etceterah, etceterah.

So, having duly slapped myself on the wrist, I shall continue. After a gentle beginning of delicate capo-ed guitar, the three-piece band appearing to back up ‘1904’ felt a little heavy. Leftwich’s ensemble songs have a distinctly Americana flavour to them, but random elements like typewriter-percussion for ‘Shine’ are able to create a little variety when they appear. The song arrangements range from wistful to stirringly atmospheric, always just stopping short of climactic. In all honesty, this irked me a little. Let go, Leftwich! Let the swelling climaxes soar! If Sigur Ros tried to pull their punches they’d just be some whiny Scandinavians with synths!

Anyway… with ‘Maps’ Leftwich returned to solo guitar and opted to perform with no amplification at all. This might have been wholly and completely lovely were it not for the Library’s roaring aircon cutting into much of the little volume there was available. ‘Maps’ as a song itself is a deft, imaginative ode to the tensions often found in relationships – which is probably a fair description of a lot of Leftwich’s writing. I have to give him credit for managing to avoid the pitfalls of allowing relationship songs to sound same-y in their themes, as well as gently weaving evidence of wider life-lessons into his lyrics.

After learning-fable ‘Snow Ship’, a band member returned and with him brought the stand-out song of the night: ‘Butterfly Culture’. I find ‘Butterfly Culture’ an exceptional song – communicating honesty, fragility and flaw with compelling simplicity reminiscent of the best of Cary Brother’s work. This was followed up with Leftwich’s famous cover of Arcade Fire’s ‘Rebellion’, which was surprisingly soothing, and ‘Stole You Away’, which seemed to pack a bit more power. Other highlights of the set (which was pretty extensive – 15 songs altogether) included the raw ‘Is That You On That Plane’, and some birthday banter with the crowd.

Despite the melancholy lilt of his songs, Leftwich appears to be a cheerful but not massively communicative character, and his ticket-buyers clearly adore him for delivering high quality live performances of the records they love – so everyones a winner, really! There’s no doubt that Leftwich has a talent for making beautiful, pensive recordings. Since the gig I have taken to listening to them on rainy days with cups of tea and good novels, so I’d probably recommend readers to do likewise before buying any tickets themselves.

Review by Jenny Bulcraig

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