Awarded with The Mercury Prize last month, Benjamin Clementine has made tangible steps forward since his days of sleeping rough and busking in Paris – the humble young artist dedicated his award to the victims of the city’s attacks in early November, overcome with sentiment at his win – as he graced the stage of St John at Hackney Church the night of his birthday on Monday, this legend-in-the-making delivered a performance true to his character, brimming with potent emotion and dazzling the audience with his on-stage grandeur.
A physically striking man, his lithe 6”3 frame hunched over the piano casting a haunting frantic-fingered silhouette behind the pared-down stage of the east London venue, and complimented the tinkling of his chilling melodies and consolidated the already established mythology that shrouds the native Londoner. Percussionist Alexis Brossard joined Clementine on stage, with dense drumbeats that served to intensify the singer’s already stunning vocal range and formidable delivery, especially during the second song of the night, ‘Condolence’, which was met with heaps of applause from a very moved audience.
“His lithe 6”3 frame hunched over the piano cast a haunting frantic-fingered silhouette behind the pared-down stage of the east London venue”
Typically shy and soft spoken, barely audible mumblings of ‘thank-you’ and ‘you’re really nice’ punctuated the dramatic deliveries of each chapter of the performance unveiling the timid 27-year old, who would occasionally cast his curious eyes upwards into the church pews of the grand but humble Church space (“It’s a difficult venue…”). He won hearts with his modest and truly bemused reaction as the venue honoured the artist with a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ early on in the evening -startled and speechless, he professed “that’s never happened to me before…”
Known for the pure and operatic sound of his accompanying piano keys, the self-taught musician’s genre-defying music style is highly narrative and poetic – a unique theatrical flair injects his live performances, which have been praised endlessly for unfolding into astonishing epics. Intros were extended and tempos were slowed, building anticipation for the unique lyricist’s mammoth tenor. The entrance of cellist Barbara Le Liepvre’s resonant plucking and bowing for the live rendition of ‘Adios’ was a particular highlight.
Clad in his usual long-tailored coat and bare foot, (it seems a stranger thought to imagine him with shoes), the Londoner is honing in on the irresistible simplicity of stage, props and costume that gift his vocal and instrumental talent with a unique and unfettered éclat. The highly respected artistic voice is certainly one to be revered and enjoyed live, with his debut album At Least For Now sparking hopeful ripples in an industry in desperate need for unique sounds. Benjamin Clementine may just be what we’ve been waiting for.
Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham’s IMPACT Magazine.