London record label Communion and local label Secret Sounds teamed up for a special Splendour sideshow showcasing a night of folk sounds to a sell out crowd. Boy and Bear drummer Tim Hart showcased his solo work; folk heartthrob Ben Howard had the younger crowd enthralled and BBC Sound of 2012 winner, Michael Kiwanuka left many gob smacked at his talents with his incredible band.

Tim Hart opened proceedings to a sparse crowd with just his acoustic guitar and intense gaze. Playing songs from his forthcoming debut record, Milling The Wind, Hart displayed incredible talent with his finger-picking guitar work and strong vocals. For those audience members used to seeing Hart behind the drums of Boy and Bear, it was a welcome surprise to see just how accomplished he is as a singer/songwriter in his own right.

It was very clear that the majority of the crowd, especially the younger demographic, was eager to see British guitarist Ben Howard and his multi-instrumentalist bandmates. It took a couple of tunes to realize that Howard’s drummer Chris Bond was not only providing the percussive rhythm but also the thudding of the bass at the same time, even using the neck of the instrument to hit the hi-hats. Not to be outdone, fellow band member India Bourne played cello, bass, percussion and sang backing vocals. The blend of folk and roots was used perfectly to show the band’s musicianship and Howard’s melodic strength.

The talented guitarist’s debut album Every Kingdom has obviously been well received with many of the lyrics sung back at him with gusto. The crowd’s enthusiasm was appreciated and apparent from the smiles across the faces of the band. Despite many a slow tempo, the energy and musicianship was high. Howard’s voice and skill on acoustic guitar was very impressive, clearly showing a strong musical background. ‘Old Pine’ highlighted his strength in performing live, the complicated guitar lines accompanied by a soaring melody that led into a blistering little hoe-down

Often the difference between a truly memorable live performance is a band’s ability to highlight dynamics – to let the music ebb and flow. This is particularly important for the sort of music Howard writes and most likely why he has chosen such incredible musicians to help him create the songs in his head.

‘The Wolves’ and ‘Only Love’ were clear highlights, rich with energy and emotive feeling, matched with just as much feeling from the crowd. Howard and his band could do no wrong and left the throng of music lovers only wanting more.

While the crowd thinned out slightly, it only gave those sticking around a better chance to catch the brilliance that is Michael Kiwanuka. Displaying a voice well beyond his years, Kiwanuka harks back to a sound steeped in soul. Reminiscent of Otis Redding, Bill Withers and even Ray Charles, the sounds that come out of this London-based songwriter are truly mesmerizing.

Just in case his voice wasn’t enough, he also had a jaw droppingly good band to accompany him. There’s no doubt Kiwanuka’s music is on the softer side and the buzz of the audience did make it difficult at times to really cut through.

Though his debut album, Home Again has only been out in Australia for a few months, there was a dedicated few familiar with the songs. Beginning with album opener ‘Tell Me A Tale’, the talents of the band and Kiwanuka were very much on display with an extended improvised jam and the singer impersonating the syncopated horn lines from the record.

Despite a slightly noisy crowd, the band persisted and cut through their banter with incredible musicianship, with a skill and synergy usually found in jazz troupes. There’s no doubting Kiwanuka’s band and also his own skill in directing and orchestrating them.

‘Rest’ brought a hush over the crowd, the songwriter explaining the setting of his bedroom where the song was written, taking the audience into a more intimate environment and demanding closer attention.

From that point on, Kiwanuka had the crowd in awe. ‘I’m Getting Ready’ was a more familiar tune and most importantly, highlighted his amazing voice that is so heavy with emotion. ‘Home Again’ again carried a real weight of nostalgia, his vocals both soaring and soft at the same time.

Having developed such an incredible reputation off the back of his debut album, his live presence is even more impressive, allowing his voice to come to the fore with the stripped back instrumentation.

– Gabe Andrews