VENUE: Festival Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival.
By JEAN WEST
You can see why Benjamin Clementine might have got on some people’s nerves early in this performance.
Late start and technical difficulties aside, the performer, who, famously honed his musical skills whilst surviving as a beggar on the streets of Paris, was, to say the least, somewhat chaotic – and when it came to communicating with the crowds, a little irritating.
Early on, those individuals, who had perhaps not known quite what to expect, began to judge the rambling man – whose attempts at humour were, initially, virtually inaudible – with their feet. A handful trickled out of the auditorium.
But, I think they were hasty. Because his music was as rich and epic as the heralds pronounced; and his lengthy asides with the audience, became more endearing as the evening progressed.
After a half hour delay, the auditorium goes black, and boom! He is here, his backing singers making surreal, noises and African sounds, that pick up his sometimes melodious, other times, off beat, ravings.
The stage performers are dressed in white boiler suits, like hip and harmonic choral angels, and he is wearing similar workwear, but sporting, a short, white, ruffled cape, projecting another-worldly, theatrical presence, as eccentric as Liberace or Prince.
And, with his beehive nest, and ebony sculpted cheek-bones, molecules of Nina Simone were surely drifting in the ether.
His music isn’t always an easy ride; much like his life was as a busker at 19 on the streets of Place de Clichy, where he slept rough. This may explain some social awkwardness.
That, and the fact that he was bullied at school, referenced in his songs, along with aching loneliness and longing that sometimes made him look a sad figure at the keyboard; before his friends burst in with backing vocals and the party started.
Cracking out of his performing shell to engage with feisty members of the crowd, he asked how to say hello in Scottish. “A’right pal,” they pronounced. He mimicked them back. One woman welcomed him to her home in Aberfeldy and he made impromptu ditty on the piano about the Port of Aberfelty, to loud applause. Some of the audience remained twitchy – they couldn’t see the joke.
Clementine later qualified both his lyrical content and attempts at fun with this beautiful epithet: “My shows are always quite grim and sad. I always want to make people smile for balance.”
Should we expect better audience interaction of an artist who struggled as a teen in the London Borough of Enfield with isolation and harassment?
It is but four years since the television debut of this barefoot performer, who was since swept up on a tidal wave of Mercury prize- winning acclaim with At Least For Now; a young man whose references to poetry, classical music, and soul were self-started.
Perhaps, we can forgive a little gaucheness and dismiss it as a quirk, and concentrate on the torrential talent, championed by Sir Paul McCartney and David Byrne for its inventiveness and dare?
Every enunciation in Clementine’s songs has meaning, and the power of the words he chooses – he reads dictionaries – elicit a performing prowess that allows him to belt out songs, and let that very tiny speaking voice rip forth untethered.
He loves Carol Anne Duffy and TS Eliot; indeed, if lyrics were poetry, he would be half way to his own Laureate status now.
“I’m lonely in a box,” he laments in one of his songs, “I dream, I smile, I woke, I cried,” in another. He discusses the aforementioned bullying and forgiveness and the need for hope.
He is intense, provocative, evocative, weird, cool and one on his own.
His inner universe is a rich landscape of psychic soulfulness and as with many performers its expression offers that compulsive, self-medicating therapy that works.
Rufus Wainwright and Anthony and the Johnsons, are in there, and maybe a bit of Boy George. But, actually, Benjamin Clementine is Benjamin Clementine.
A young man still, whose smaller boy, stole a mini piano from a class mate for an afternoon, and fell in love with making sounds in infinitesimal ways.
Now he has his own big piano and that drive to be himself, to nurture his own voice and beat back the bullies with self-love, is surely worth our indulgence?
Not for nothing was he named one of the most influential people in Britain in 2015.
And now that Bowie and Cohen are gone, here is another unique star in ascendance.