by Oscar Ross, Music Editor
Squeezing through a sold-out crowd of reluctantly dragged fathers of teenage daughters, awkwardly standing boyfriends and floods of adoring fans, photographer Mark Leighton and I enjoyed a night of wide-eyed indie-pop.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich
Folky, heartfelt songs silenced the chattering crowd for a while as the support act, Benjamin Francis Leftwich took the stage. Leftwich's soft acoustic guitar and breathy vocals juxtaposed with some of his darker lyrics, while still maintaining a generally whimsical feel to his set.
Leftwich's skilful playing made his instrument sound harp-like, and with nothing but an acoustic and his own voice, Leftwich's set, though at points perhaps repetitive and emo to the extreme, captivated a large crowd that was awake with sound moments before he stepped on stage. Leftwich sang passionately on themes of love, loneliness and friendship, staying true to his stripped back recorded sound in his live performance.
The intimate, narrative folk song set engaged the crowd with the night to come, with Leftwich singing (not literally) Holly Humberstone's praises, also mentioning how he hadn't played Bristol in ten years and was very happy to be back. All in all, if you're in the mood for some cosy fireplace music this Christmas period, stick on some Benjamin Francis Leftwich.
Screams erupted as the stage lights dimmed, rumbling static and distorted vocals swirled around the O2 and Holly Humberstone's band readied on stage. This intro seamlessly faded into the backing vocals of 'The Walls Are Way Too Thin'. This strong opener had heads bopping and the crowd singing along straight from the outset. Humberstone's signature mix of synth work and backing vocals still worked live, with her backing track providing a great backdrop to the raw, driving sound of her band and her guitar, staying true to her sound while also giving her live set a new, grittier edge.
Shouting out to the crowd during the drunk breaks in her opener, Humberstone excitedly told the crowd how gassed she was to be there on the first night of her tour as 'The Walls Are Way too Thin' seeped into the next song, 'Vanilla' without a break. Humberstone led with her most rocky, upbeat tunes, immediately grabbing the crowds attention. The seamlessness of the start of the set avoided any awkward silences, with Humberstone's interaction with the audience staying lighthearted and engaging.
'Vanilla' showed off Humberstone's the rocky edge of her live performance. while the record is a catchy, indie pop type tune (still a great track btw), the gritty live drums and driving guitar elevated the song above and beyond. It was the breaks in the songs that really worked well. Those moments between verses and choruses where the drums would disappear to leave Humberstone's pitch perfect vocals alone on stage, just as the band dove into a full blown driven rocky sound, backed by atmospheric, reverb washed synths and vocals.
'Overkill', yet another of Humberstone's earlier, rockier tunes, saw the singer/songwriter swaying with her signature HH Stratocaster, crooning alongside her crowd of backing singer fans. Humberstone lazily strummed and sang with ease, again with the punchy pauses in her songs leaving room for brilliant, hair raising drops. This song also saw Humberstone use her second mic to sing some of her catchy backing vocals, showing her commitment to an authentic live sound.
The set then slowed into 'Please Don't Leave Just Yet', with this poppy anti-ballad showing off Humberstone's newer, Matty Healy influenced sound. The emotive, warbling track still gave off Humberstone's signature swaying, intimate feel, with the occasional inflections of acoustic piano in the backing track beautifully cutting through the heavily produced electric, synth sounds to compliment Humberstone's vocals, eventually ending with just Humberstone sat at the piano with a mic.
From here Humberstone was sat down at the piano , seemingly more at ease with the crowd in this setting, as she began to open up more about the meaning behind the songs she played and how she was feeling about her new tour.
“Its so beautiful here” smiled Humberstone as she thanked everyone for coming to her first headline show here in Bristol, also admitting how nervous she was on stage, to the absolute anarchy of her crowd that cheered her on with glee. While Humberstone didn't seem nervous in her performance at all, her intimacy and honesty with her crowd drew out the emotion in her songs, creating a greater sense of belonging in the usually dark and cramped O2.
Humberstone explained the nerve racking story behind 'London is Lonely', describing how she moved away from home into a random Facebook marketplace flat share. “It was f***ing terrifying” laughed Humberstone, as she softly played piano and sang “I’ve been smoking and staying up to late, but I’ve got good intentions babe”. This sums up the themes of teenage infatuation and youth that are woven into Humberstone's songwriting, themes that became more and more focused on as the set progressed.
I do have to confess, it was very sweet to see so many members of the audience being brought to tears by some of Humberstone's intimate piano songs. However I did find it hard not to laugh as I stood alone, looking to my left and right to find that I was completely surrounded by weeping teenage girls. I don't know why it was funny, the songs are great and Humberstone's performance of them was moving. It was just that moment of realisation, seeing I was blocked in at all sides by tearful audience members as I tried to make notes on my phone. Must have looked a right idiot, but hey, that's the gig.
Humberstone went on to talk about her recent releases, admitting that her perfectionist tendencies tend to delay things a-lot. “It feels like ages since I've been on a UK tour” commented Humberstone, as she played more songs from her latest album Can You Afford To Lose Me?. Here the 80s slow dance vibes came through with bassy synths driving beneath her ethereal vocals. The singer/songwriter's multi-instrumentalism also shone through as she ended her title track 'Can You Afford To Lose Me' with just her, a mic and the crowd acting as a choir behind her.
Humberstone also gave heartfelt explanations of her songs 'Friendly Fire', written about how “It can suck having to hurt someone you really care about” and played with soft, playful guitar and vocals, slowly swelling synths, featuring beautiful guitar licks coming in and out of the mix, as well as 'Haunted House'.
'Haunted House' showed Humberstone opening up about where she grew up with her sisters, saying how: “It was really special place, I had the sickest time as a kids there with my sisters, but now its all just scaffolding”. Humberstone explained how the song was written out her desire to say goodbye to the place she grew up, and come to terms with how that meant she had to grow up herself. It brilliant, intimate performance followed.
So overall, Holly Humberstone opened some of with her best tunes, snatching the attention of the audience so that when it slowed to her more intimate songs, she still had them in the palm of her hand. It was a true command of the audience despite her self proclaimed nerves, also matched by a brilliant live set that brought her records to life with a rockier, punchier sound. Look out for what's next for this talented young singer/songwriter and be sure to catch tickets early next time she's in town, don't miss out.
Listen to Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Holly Humberstone's tunes here:
Photography by Mark Leighton
Have you listened to Holly Humberstone yet?