Review: Benjamin Francis Leftwich

Sriya Varadharajan 3 May 2016

At long last, Ben is back. After five years away from the limelight, the folk-pop singer-songwriter has returned – albeit in his characteristically humble manner. 

The Portland Arms is completely sold out on the second night of his pre-album release tour, which will see him stopping off across the UK, Europe and North America. Yet the Cambridge crowd initially seems as shy as Benjamin himself. 

During ethereal opener ‘Tilikum’ – the first single to be released from ‘After the Rain’, to be released 19th August – his languid, whispering vocals are greeted with a quiet, courteous attentiveness from his audience. ‘You’re being so quiet – it’s amazing!’, he says at one point. It’s a weird atmosphere at first – but when Ben suddenly moves away from his mic to perform the third new song of the night, his intention becomes clear. 

Even from the back of the venue, every single guitar note is gloriously crystal-clear. It’s a relief to hear his vocals unswathed from the layers of pillowy reverb that often obscure him, on both his recordings and live performances. And there’s a perceptible fascination amongst the crowd as every ear and eye strains to capture his movements – and a rush of the loudest applause of the night as he finishes.

The overriding impression we get of the upcoming album is a glittering strain of optimism that runs through every unfamiliar track. As Benjamin sings of ‘freedom’, ‘happiness’ and ‘light’, there’s a sense of a turning-point having been experienced by the 26-year-old. He’s been equally open in a lot of recent interviews about the reason for his long absence, and the motivation behind this latest album; much of the material was written in the wake of his late father’s death. Despite the sadness of this context, however, there’s little hint of tragedy in his performance. 

‘It’s been a long hard year; I’ve been waiting for the summer to come’, he sings. Ben is certainly emerging from what seems to have been some particularly dark shadows. If the new stuff’s anything to go by, he seems as glad to be finally back as his audience is to hear him again.