It's difficult to imagine anyone forgetting the first time they see Benjamin Clementine come onto stage. The tension is palpable as he enters the dark arena bare foot and out of the silence starts to play the piano, illuminated only by a spotlight. It's such an unexpectedly different experience: he appears like an apparition. So much about this act is refreshingly individual, otherworldly, and takes you back in time. Benjamin is physically striking too: tall, gaunt, with an afro, and perched on an implausibly high stool (to the extent that someone later called out their concern for his posture). His between song chatter barely shatters the hush, as he mumbles so quietly I can barely hear him, but a reminder of the more mundane is provided by the audience participation. He's adept at conjuring up a direct conversation, aided by the openness of the Salford crowd. So, after he remarked about the cold weather, he paused for comments, and a lady shouted out: 'but you've warmed our hearts tonight', greeted by applause from the auditorium. When questioned about that out sized perch, he explained that when he acquired a piano, he lacked a stool, and his flat was situated above a bar.
Given Benjamin's theatricality, the choice of venue was apt, and he commented favourably upon its acoustics. His strange, malleable spinto tenor voice has attracted most comment from reviewers, but I was particularly struck by the sensitive, nuanced piano playing. He's explained previously that as a child, he became bored with pop music and started listening to Classic FM, which lead him to imitate Erik Satie. The French composer Debussy has also been mentioned as an influence, yet his polarising vocal style is a long way from operatic. It's certainly melodramatic, at times tortured, but perhaps too affected for some. He varies the timbre for expression, and whilst the tenor range is limited, he has a striking falsetto, deployed sparingly, for example in the second half of Adios. He enunciates words like an actor, and the dynamics vary from a whisper to filling the hall with their power. A drummer provided accompaniment to some songs: whilst initially I felt this was superfluous and detracted from the solo focus, he provided a subtle partner in later songs like London, with its catchy melody.
Some critics have allowed Benjamin's background to dominate their commentary, to his frustration: "sometimes it feels like my story overshadows my music". Yet it does aid understanding of the outlook of his art. He was subject to a strict Christian upbringing in Edmonton, North London, and as a result of being bullied, left school at 16 having passed only an English Literature qualification. An argument with his family (he's still estranged from his parents) led him to becoming homeless, and at the age of 19 he moved to Paris, busking on the Metro and sleeping on the streets. Eventually, he moved into a hostel in Montmartre, living in a 10 man bunk room, and after 4 years was discovered by an agent. In 2013, his first EP followed, and an appearance on Jools Holland which attracted much critical acclaim. After the release of At Least For Now in January, the latest chapter in this story is his recent Mercury victory for the best British album of the year, which might have been unexpected if that prestigious jury didn't have a track record of favouring the avant garde.
I'd suggest that any doubters need to see him live: devoid of the syrupy string arrangements, he creates an unguarded, free-form expression of alienation and sadness. As Benjamin himself explained in a recent interview, his music: “is me, speaking directly to you. I've learned in the little bit of my life so far that you can’t fool people. And so I only tell people what I think about: my ambitions, my dreams, what inspires me.” The poetry can be high brow, with influences from CS Lewis, William Blake and John Locke amidst others, often reflecting the restlessness of his life. he disclosed last night that he is working on a second album, but it's difficult to imagine him compromising artistically to capitalise upon the attention from the win. Benjamin's alternative perspective on life means that despite, or perhaps because of his poverty, he donated the Mercury prize money to provide pianos for Edmonton's youth. He also provided one of the most moving tributes to the victims of the Paris terrorist tragedy in his acceptance speech. That sensitivity manifests itself in a beautifully nuanced performance. There may have been no support act last night, and the song writing can at times be repetitive, but Benjamin Clementine is one of the most remarkable and distinctive live acts you can experience right now.
Note that photographs of the performance were not permitted.