Ben Howard is all about levels.
The British singer-songwriter, playing to a sold-out crowd at Austin Music Hall, fully gave his performance over to contrasts both visual and aural Friday night. For example: It took at least four songs until Howard rose from a crouched sitting position. The lights behind the singer’s five-person band alternated from spastically blinking floodlights chasing after each other to sudden, sharp cuts to black. But most notably, every single song seemed to build from the ground-up into a clattering crescendo.
Take a mid-set performance of Howard’s latest single, the Ryan-Adams-spirited “I Forget Where We Were”: Start low, melancholy, intimate. Percolate to a whirlwind of melting guitar reverb and crashing drums. So it was throughout the set. (If you like Explosions In the Sky, you would not have been disappointed.)
It’s fitting that Howard peddled such dynamic contrasts all evening, as anyone more familiar with his 2011 album “Every Kingdom” (which went double platinum in the U.K.) would have noticed that the “Only Love” singer was drawing a musical line in the sand. The acoustic campfire bro jams of his debut album (pleasant as though they may be) gave way to the dark, taut, mysterious rock of last year’s “I Forget Where We Were,” and that tonal shift hung over the show like a stormcloud. From the opening Spaghetti Western strings of “Small Things,” with a tousle-headed Howard illuminated in a rainbow corona by the spotlight behind him but otherwise cloaked in shadow and smoke, the mood never ticked up past “conflicted and compelling sorrow.”
Gloomy, menacing new songs like “End of the Affair,” dripping in echoes, upright bass rumbles and spacey guitars, seemed to suck jaunty tunes like “The Fear” into themselves like the Swamp of Sadness from “The NeverEnding Story.” When Howard did play older songs, it was nothing so hopeful as “Keep Your Head Up,” but instead “Black Flies.” (I don’t need to append a modifier to a song called “Black Flies” to let you know that it’s not a cheerful song.) Howard even played the opening chords of warm-and-fuzzy “Old Pine” before that number, in a fakeout that no doubt dashed many hopes in the crowd.
Howard himself maintained a friendly remove, not given to banter but instead giving the impression of a green-T-shirted yogi in intense meditation. Speaking of dynamics — or singing of dynamics, rather — Howard’s vocals perfectly complemented his own sonic dichotomies, splintering from his signature twangy mutter on quieter moments into a sharp, incisive, forte cry.
It was the pleasant, mumbly Howard who returned to the stage after a stomping demand from the audience for an encore. He barely got out the words “We’ve kind of run out of songs” before the crowd erupted; you can’t just leave out a couple of your best-known tunes and not expect that kind of reaction. With a nimble-fingered, acoustic coda and a humble bow to the happy campers filling the hall, it seemed like the ray of sunlight peeking out after a fascinating thunderstorm.