When you spend your time photographing and reviewing live music, it stands to reason you try to chase the biggest acts you can possibly find; there’s something particularly exciting about snapping a major artist in the throes of performance. But, the thrill of capturing a superstar that you know has been pictured thousands of times before can still be eclipsed when you find yourself at the other end of the spectrum. Who is to say that today’s unknown band or artist isn’t tomorrow’s Catfish And The Bottlemen or Adele? So, when I was recently tipped off that a highly regarded but practically unheard of local talent was playing his biggest gig by far at Portsmouth’s Wedgewood Rooms, I jumped at the chance to check him out.
The highly regarded but practically unheard of local talent in question goes by the name of Mack Hofberg. Hofberg, just nineteen, was a student at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, Surrey – one of the largest specialist contemporary music schools in the country. It’s a place that spews out prodigious talent with great regularity – Ed Sheeran and Newton Faulkner are notable alumni. Take a walk around the town though and the inordinate number of ACM guitar cases slung over drooping shoulders tells you that, sadly, it’s also a place fostering an awful lot of dreams shared by an awful lot of people you’re never going to hear about. An evening in the company of Mack Hofberg has left me concluding that regardless of where he goes from here, he certainly deserves to be one of the notable ones.
Dressed in a plaid shirt and with just an acoustic guitar and an eponymously titled kick drum for company, Hofberg cut a lonely figure on the Wedgewood Room stage. He opened with the self-penned instrumental Cowboy Song and immediately it was apparent what all the fuss was about. He plays an acoustic guitar, finger style in the mould of the phenomenal Andy McKee, which means plenty of percussive taps, slaps and snaps and frequently both hands at the business end of the neck picking and fingering the strings. Harmonics sizzle out of Hofberg’s fingers as if they were passing too close to a nearby Van de Graaff generator. It’s kind of what Eddie Van Halen used to do, minus the bad taste, distortion and Spandex. This style of playing also lends itself to the notion that you’re hearing several guitar parts at once and it’s refreshing to be getting it from raw talent alone rather than a £99 looping effects pedal from the local music shop.
The set has one cover, Drifting, an instrumental by the aforementioned Andy McKee who it transpires through a story we’re told is Hofberg’s idol and somebody he met when he was fifteen. When Mack asked him “How can I be as good as you”, McKee replied after a few seconds consideration: “You can never be as good as me”.
Hofberg quickly established himself as a consummate guitarist, but he is more than that. As well as delivering some of the finger picking pyrotechnics of his peers, he also has a voice; an ethereal and fragile vocal that’s full of emotion and suggests a few life experiences that somehow seem inconsistent with his age. The whole is a collection of finely handcrafted songs that fit into the folk pop/rock territory occupied by the likes of Ben Howard and Nick Mulvey. Mack closed the set with Going Nowhere, another percussive song that fostered some nice crowd participation and garnered well earned and vocal support from a very appreciative crowd.
After the performance I asked him whether he saw himself as a guitarist that sings or a vocalist that plays guitar. He confided that he feels he’s more the latter but that he’d like to think he’s a better songwriter than either. That might be true, but he also said: “Short of what I relentlessly practice, I’m an incredibly average guitar player”. That, my friends, manifestly isn’t true.
So, is Mack Hofberg going to be a household name in years to come? Who can say in a world where sadly most of us are told what to like by clowns like Simon Cowell and Ricky Wilson. What I do know is that if you see his name listed as performing at a venue near you then do yourself a favour and go. There can’t possibly be more than one ‘Mack Hofberg’ about so it’s a very low-risk option; he is an artist completely deserving of a wider audience and your ears will thank you for it too. You heard it here first.
Live Review & Concert Photography by Simon Reed. See more of Simon’s photography on his personal website: www.musicalpictures.co.uk