Photo (c) Alex Rawson
Into the stillness treads, on bare feet, Benjamin Clementine, who under ‘house lights down’ is an otherworldly composite of impossible cheekbones and beehive afro.
Let’s start with a correction. My preview for this show may have overplayed the similarity between The Colston Hall and its second room, The Lantern. In actual fact, the two venues share an owner, an atrium, and nothing else. Around one hundred people are here, having kept their ears to the ground and picked up the vibrations made by Benjamin Clementine’s arresting performance on Later…with Jools Holland in October. Arranged on temporary seating, which covers less than half of the carpeted floor – when did you last watch a gig on carpet? – they wait in awkward reverence. With The Lantern’s ‘house lights up’ or ‘house lights down’ approach to lighting, the whole thing feels more school play than pop concert; there’s even a telepathically agreed ban on phones, enforced by disapproving glances for the first few people brazen enough to let theirs disturb the militant stillness of the room.
And into this stillness treads, on bare feet, Benjamin Clementine, who under ‘house lights down’ is an otherworldly composite of impossible cheekbones and beehive afro. We’ve all come from the office; he from some sort of wilderness. He mentions having today had a Mission Burrito; we laugh at the idea that he would ever do something so mundane. Actually, he recently came from Paris, where he was talent-spotted while busking on the metro. Sounds more likely. This is Benjamin Clementine’s origin tale, his equivalent of Bon Iver’s year in a cabin in the woods, to be regurgitated by pressmen like myself for the duration of his career. It could be mighty effective, and he wears it openly. In addition to the bare feet, he has black trousers and, over a bare torso, a black overcoat, buttonless so that he must constantly hold it across himself, as if to keep warm on a night sleeping rough.
It is also, the hand clenched permanently over the chest, an outward signal for the guardedness of his stage persona, which is geared up for maximum inscrutability. He sings with heavy lidded eyes, flitting between expressions of indifference and mild amusement, but always precociously comfortable on stage. During one period of inter song chatter, he has audience members shout out a very dull list of the places they have come from – Bath, Cheltenham, Cardiff. He’s has nothing to offer in return. He just wants to know.
Odd as it is, it fits with the music. Benjamin Clementine sings in what feel like freeform rhythms with a voice of spectacular agility and force over pulsing, often arpeggiated piano lines. The sound is right at the boundaries of pop music, and should Clementine’s management be successful in their stated quest to get on Radio 1, it will sound like nothing for years either side of it. Imagine, if you can, a cross between Nina Simone, Luciano Pavarotti (a named influence) and Christina Aguilera.
But however advanced a performer, he is an equally naïve lyricist. One track about looking for work in Paris is called ‘Curriculum Vitae’ and whirls around the central line, “When am I going to get a job?/I’m still filling application forms”. Another recalls ‘Tribute’ by Tenacious D, of all things. In that song, Jack Black joke-laments the loss of the “best song in the world”, which resulted from a jam session with Satan. Clementine goes one further. Having been visited by angels and sung a celestial melody, he proceeds to repeat it for us. Cue thirty seconds of entirely straight-faced falsetto.
‘Nemesis’, the Jools Holland version of which you’ll find online, provides the clearest contrast between Clementine’s music to remember and words to forget. The piano springs along playfully, rising into dramatic, sustained chords at the chorus. The vocal likewise swells, unexpectedly yet seamlessly, from prodding taunt to force of nature. But the sentiment is a dodgy patchwork of platitudes – “Treat others the way you want to be treated”; “Karma comes around”. No wonder then that the evening’s standing ovation, spectacular in itself, follows an ambitious Enrico Caruso cover in the original Italian.
There’s no doubting the talent on show at The Lantern tonight, and it is fascinating to speculate on where it will take Clementine in one or two year’s time. I am later informed by a co-manager that his artist, a self-identified ‘poet who plays the piano’, will not be receptive to commercial advice or much collaboration – he just wants to perform as much as possible. That is one option. Time spent with a more conventional songwriter or producer, however, might makefor ultimately more interesting material. In vocal and performance style alone, Benjamin Clementine is effortlessly distinctive. The man could release a Michael Buble Christmas album and still be avant-garde.
Watch him performing ‘Cornerstone’ live on Jools Holland: