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Benjamin Francis Leftwich, performer from the age of 10 and songwriter six years later, is but one of the many artists striving for a voice in today’s congested acoustic scene. It’s a scene where hundreds of talented young artists fall just short of that extra ‘spark’ or ‘oomph’ that divides them from the Laura Marlings and Ed Sheerans of this world. In Leftwich’s case, nothing but the hard graft of months of touring and recording has created the ripples of public attention around his debut album, The Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm, released last July. Recently the artist attempted to build on the success of his early warm critical reception with a mammoth twenty-four date UK tour culminating at the Lancaster Library, along with support acts Oifar and Daughter.
Oifar are the first band of the evening to take to the stage and immediately prove the difficulty of finding originality in the acoustic genre. The London based duo boast competent and pleasurably contrasting male and female vocals but lack much in the way of memorable lyrical flourish, and the overlapping sound of their two guitars is soothingly melodic, if not particularly intricate. The following act, Daughter, prove far more difficult to forget. Lead singer Elena Torona has a truly exceptional voice, both powerful but haunting in equal measure, built to fever pitch amidst the frantic electric guitar playing. Songs Landfill and Candles perhaps best demonstrate this combination of dark lyrics and mesmerising vocals. It’s a performance weirdly nervy in audience interaction – but in complete control musically – and the band could certainly have an interesting future.
Of course, no matter what the warm up act the two hundred strong crowd here from the start today have been waiting for one person alone. They don’t have to wait much longer until Leftwich ambles in, guitar in hand, to a flurry of woops and cheers. Never a man for grandiose introduction we are greeted with a launch straight into the melodic opener 1904. The song, apparently a reference to an attempt of the Wright brothers to fly, sets the gig off on a tone of love, loss, faith and desperation that is maintained throughout. Subsequent songs Pictures and Bottle Baby further demonstrate his ability to blend warm guitar melodies with dreamy, beautifully soft vocals.
It all induces a rather surreal atmosphere, Leftwich’s gently swaying figure bathed in changing coloured lights surrounded by tightly packed bookshelves. The audience themselves seem to be lost in the dreamy state of the performance every now and then pulled back at emphatic moments or expressions of applause. Every now and again the guitarist cheerfully engages with the crowd romantic tales behind a songs creation or expressions of good humour, confessing that ‘Lancaster is a beautiful city’.
Around half way through the set the acoustic guitar is dismissed and replaced by its electric counterpart for Is It You on That Plane?, a song revealed to have been ‘written whilst star gazing on a cliff in Australia’. The welcome change of sound this brings gives the song much more of a ballad quality and allows for a particularly powerful chorus. However, we are soon taken back to the acoustic melodies Shine and Maps, Leftwich projecting his voice amidst closed eyes and gentle movements, pouring his heart into his lyrics. Occasionally he slightly nervously says ‘If it’s OK I’d like to play this one quietly’, delicately creating a greater sense of intimacy.
Unfortunately, if any criticism can be laid at the performance it is irrevocably due to the content of his music itself and that is fundamentally its lack of variety. Save for the aforementioned Is That You on That Plane? there is too little to differentiate between songs and it almost feels a shame the guitarist has not opted to push new limits or explore new depths. What this does allow however is the perfection of soft melody and romantic sentiment seen in the final crowd pleasers Box of Stones and Atlas Hands. The latter particularly had the mixed crowd of young and old beaming in delight before the final applause.
Such performances may expose Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s lack of musical experimentation but who can blame him for doing what he does best when it’s this good? Time will tell whether or not the upcoming artist will make a serious dent in the music industry but either I’m sure he’ll maintain his mastery of beautiful, heartfelt performances at intimate venues.