Watching Howie Day perform was like a little kid watching a magic show.
During the climax of his opening number, “Sorry So Sorry,” he stopped playing his guitar altogether. But the music still resonated throughout the room, a full, sonorous sound that sounded like it could not possibly have come from one instrument. Was he using prerecorded music in his show? That seemed antithetical to not only what I had heard about Day’s live shows but to the venue itself, a place dedicated to stripped-down acoustic performances.
It took a few songs before I realized what he was doing. He would play a simple melody, sing a refrain, and tap out beats on the base of his guitar. He recorded it all, then layered the sounds together as he was performing to create a backing track of sorts. His flawless looping, the way he developed harmonies there on the spot using only his voice and his guitar, had to be seen to be believed.
Even after the show ended, “Sorry So Sorry” stuck with me. It was more than just the layering and looping. Day’s performance of the song was incredibly emotional and raw, something a lot of live performances lack. He took a page from the musical theatre playbook when he hit a high note with precision, then held it for several beats and let his vibrato take over. He then utilized the reverb pedal so that the sound echoed throughout the room, a move that was especially powerful in such a small venue.
Day also showcased his creativity and adaptability when unexpected trouble struck. In the middle of a performance of “Disco,” a string on his guitar broke. Because he didn’t have a backing band or a stage crew, he had to go backstage and fix it himself. When it became clear that he couldn’t finish the song, he tapped out a rhythm on his guitar and sang a small refrain from the song, then put it on repeat for the audience while he went tended to his instrument. He came back and finished the song to raucous applause.
Unlike many artists I’ve seen at The Ark, Day did very little talking in between numbers, opting to instead let the music speak for itself. He did, however, utilize musical interludes where he would layer sound upon sound, sometimes incorporating whistling or even his own whispers for a greater effect. Those interludes were as breathtaking as they were unexpected — most do not appear on his albums, and his appearance as “white man with acoustic guitar” doesn’t invoke images of innovative instrumentation.
The unexpectedness of Day’s set was part of what made it more magical. He combined the best parts of an arena concert — epic instrumentals and a sense of getting lost in the moment — with the intimacy and emotion of a small venue.
Day saved his biggest hit, “Collide,” for his final encore, opting for a more stripped-down arrangement of the song that made him famous. In holding off on “Collide,” Day was able to show the audience all he could do, then allow them to sit back and enjoy a song they already knew and loved, the cherry on top of a night I won’t be forgetting any time soon.