Reviewer – Jonny Black
Benjamin Clementine is a very interesting performer. Tonight the intimate Quays Theatre is full and the mixed audience expectant. Clementine is fresh from winning the prestigious Mercury Prize for his 2015 album At Least For Now. Not a huge commercial successbut Clementine is well-respected within the music industry and his reputation as a beguiling and emotive live performer is growing – as witnessed tonight.
Clementine’s road to musical celebrity has been an unusual one. Born in Crystal Palace, South London 26 years ago, he moved to the working class area of Edmonton in North London while he was still young. He did not do too well at school, preferring to immerse himself in poetry at the local library. In his teenage years, he escaped to Paris and started to busk the Parisian streets and Metro while living in a cheap hostel. He also spent a period living homeless. It was during this time that he started to pen a lot of his heartfelt songs based on personal experiences.
Many of the songs tell of lost love, the challenges of life on the street and the yearning to explore and travel. Often his songs can have touches of humour too with cleverly written poetic lyrics. His song structures are complex and interesting; drawing comparisons with Nina Simone, Billy Holiday and Anthony Heggarty, while also reminiscent of the vocal delivery of Edith Piaf.
Tonight, Clementine shuffles on to the stage in blackout. He is bang on time and modestly acknowledges the audience with a nod before taking to his piano. He is joined onstage by a very able drummer whom he introduces as ‘Alexis’. Dressed only in a long, oversized jacket, worn jeans and bare feet, Clementine is a true Jazz hobo for the new generation. He is quiet and understated in speech, which contrasts sharply with his rich and strong vocal delivery. The acoustics in the theatre are excellent and he grabs our attention immediately with his skilful and unique piano style. The drums complement this perfectly by adding depth and texture.
Clementine uses interesting jazz time signatures and maverick song structures to weave his way through a collection of songs formed mainly from his current album and the 2013 Cornerstone EP. London, Nemesisand Cornerstoneare stand out songs along with the epic Condolence.
Humour is provided with songs like Bendy Buses, while Edmonton tells us more about his early upbringing. He also plays a selection of new songs which he casually tells us “may be included on the new album – perhaps!”
I’m sorry, I don’t talk much…
Clementine is self-taught and has never had vocal training. This is impressive as his range extends from very low and rich bass tones right up to a belting tenor. His vocal delivery continually changes in style. He can croon, belt, narrate and lament. Often his songs break down and he uses a speech quality not dissimilar to a musical or operetta. The piano playing, again self-taught, is extremely skilful and unique in style.
Part way through the set, Clementine starts to engage with the audience by asking how our day has been. This is met with typical northern straight talking, which provides an entertaining contrast to his delicate and emotional soft-spoken tones. Firstly he is corrected on being in Salford and not in Manchester. Then in response to his remark that ‘it’s cold in Manchester’, the immediate reply, in a broad Salfordian accent, is “Put more clothes on then!”. This is followed by concern for his posture and his back as he stoops over the piano from a bar stool rather than a traditional piano stool. A piano stool’s “boring” he tell us.
Everything about Clementine is unpredictable and unusual. He’s a dichotomy in many ways. Perhaps too left field to ever be a huge commercial success, but based on tonight’s performance
He will build a loyal following and fulfil his dream of being able to earn a living from performing music to appreciative audiences. As one audience member told him: “It may be cold today, but you’ve warmed our hearts tonight.”
Reviewed on 1 December 2015.Touring nationally until 7 December, then internationally | Image: Contributed