Theatre Royal, Brighton
Thursday 21st May
If you have ever had one of those moments, a turning flash in your life, like a dazzling comet falling to earth, then the appearance of Benjamin Clementine in the Brighton Festival 2015 line-up, could easily count as a landmark to that point.
Tonight’s performance is Clementine’s second visit to the Brighton Festival, having opened for Cat Power at the Brighton Dome in May 2014. At first glance, as he comes out on to the stage clad mainly in a sleek dark-grey Crombie overcoat, shirtless and barefoot, to an enthusiastic roar from the assembled Theatre Royal crowd, it is still difficult to imagine him as a homeless man living on the streets of the Place de Clichy in Paris, in hostels in Montmartre, and busking on the Metro. Yet sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. In the three years since he was first discovered, North London-born Clementine has made two EPs, “Cornerstone” and “Glorious You”, for French label Behind Music, and his songs have gone viral on YouTube. He has appeared on Later with Jools Holland, garnering the praise of Paul McCartney, and has performed at the 2014 Montreux Jazz Festival. His first studio album, “At Least for Now” was released in January 2015, which forms the basis of his current tour. It’s an extraordinary catalogue of achievement in a short space of time, and a kind of explosion of self-expression not seen every day. Yet this artistic complexity sits somewhat at odds with the simplicity of his act. For starters, the stage is almost completely dark, with nothing else but a black backdrop and a single spotlight.
“Wow, what a place,” says Clementine, looking around the auditorium and at the seating in plush red rows under the elaborate nineteenth-century pillars and balconies of the theatre. By contrast, his set itself seems deliberately minimalist. His speaking voice is curiously squeaky, high and soft, underlying a dandified but definite masculinity.
Moving with a dancer’s grace to his piano stool, he opens the show, in no particular hurry, with “Condolence” from his first EP.
First, there comes a babble of rippling stream-of consciousness piano, simultaneously hot and cold, like a thermal Icelandic lake. Then, his singing voice rings out into the air, deep and resonant. |There are layers and layers and textures of jazz in that voice, which also seems to make its home in the blues.
Actually, I can hear three different registers within its sound: pure and birdlike falsetto; a mellow and expressive chest voice, not unlike a cello; and a booming heart-warming bass. He uses it to visibly move and challenge the crowd, which I can feel quivering and sighing in swathes and waves of emotion, as Clementine swims through the songs “ Adios” “Nemesis”, and “The People and I”, his evocative and powerful words ever more urging his fans to reflect on their own lives through his own poignant self-mirroring. Easy listening it ain’t.
As a modern society we are used to the live confessional and self-unburdening of the singer-songwriter. But Clementine is refreshingly different: a 21st century self-styled singer-poet and pianist. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is something of the genius composer about him. His rapport with the audience is instant and striking within the first few phrases.
“Makes it all up on the spot, he does,” I hear someone behind me whisper. Throughout the set, the instrumental improvisational comparisons with jazz feel inevitable, and yet Clementine also wears his classical compositional influences clearly on the sleeve of his Crombie.
After a break in the music, clearing his throat and shuffling for what seems an age, he welcomes on stage, with an eloquent gesture of his long fingers, a solo female cello player, who accompanies him on an impassioned version of “Cornerstone”, one of his YouTube hits. In this song, cello and piano build up a duel in a passionate cascading vortex of sound.
“Where are you going?” he asks, as the cellist draws the last plaintive call from her bow across the strings, and makes as if to leave the stage. As the audience giggle, he gestures to her instead to come to his side at the piano and stand there to listen to him as he sings of the needy city boy, desperate for love in “London”, following up with “ Gone”, a tale of urban desertion, tinged with delicious humour. As Clementine cranes his neck around, much like a mime artist, to watch an imaginary lover leaving him, “We love you, Benjamin!” bursts out in a sudden exclamation from the front row. Clementine is visibly touched by this, bowing, and saying “Thank you“, in that hushed speaking voice of his, accompanied by several minutes of clapping.
There is a real sense of theatre in the way Clementine comes over as a performer. He is a master of the pause, making it redolent with meaning. He also harnesses the power of silence on stage, pure and simple, using it much as a method actor does. However, once more a paradox: there is a faint puff of the music hall in the air, as if Clementine had somehow imbibed the influence of Brighton resident and twentieth-century raconteur -comedian Max Miller as he passed by his statue in the Pavilion Gardens on his way to the stage door earlier on in the evening. In addition to this, the influences of French music hall; overtones of French chanson: the “boulevardiste” society, with the young Edith Piaf singing in smoky Parisian bars, all also make themselves felt in his songs. Combined with traditional Gallic sensitivity to and appreciation for a meaningful lyric, it is perhaps no accident that he was first discovered in France. And yet he is unmistakeably a “world” artist in the true sense of the word.
As the show ends, he and the cellist come back on stage to play an encore with two more songs, “Mathematics”, followed by “I Won’t Complain”.
And for one electrifying moment, the single spotlight, high above, picks out Clementine’s regal profile, with its photogenically high cheekbones, held frozen in time.
Although there are bound to be the inevitable critical parallels drawn with other artists, Clementine continues to exude his own appeal. More innocent than Nina Simone, more assertive and extrovert than Antony Hegarty, whatever the conjectured reasons for the current wave of his popularity, his virtuoso piano, gut-wrenching voice, improvisational flair, nerve-touching lyrics highlighting the absurdity and sadness of life and love, his honesty, vulnerability and sheer heart, should ensure his longevity.
(photo by Jasmine Sharif)