Benjamin Clementine at the Barbican

If I had to choose one word to describe Benjamin Clementine’s sell-out  gig at the Barbican Centre on April 1st, then surely it must be fascinating. The 26-year old London-born singer spent a number of years in his late teens and early twenties homeless on the streets of Paris, earning his keep through busking on the streets, in bars and hotels and on the Paris metro, before being spotted by an agent in 2012. 

A lot of Clementine’s performance style refers back to those times, as do many of his lyrics. He describes himself as an expressionist, and behind everything he does, it is easy to get the sense that every note he plays on the piano, every sound he produces in his voice and every word he sings are deliberately included, serving a purpose of some description and making everything he performs all the more emotionally charged. If you listen close enough, you can hear influences from people like Nina Simone and Erik Satie (type in Gymnopedie No. 1 into YouTube and you’ll know who he is) in his music, and even a bit of Einaudi, but Clementine’s music is so much better than that.

He is, I feel, a rare performing talent – one who is able to marry performing poetry with performing music. Because it’s clear that he has the makings of not just a  hugely talented musician – with an astonishing vocal range –  nor is he just a very gifted poet. Although at this instance I feel there may have been moments when it was difficult to tell whether I was watching a musical performance or a poetry recital, in time and with practice, getting the balance right is something that Clementine will master and I cannot help but wonder if the art of performing will be given a drastic makeover by the time he achieves this.Movie Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

All too soon, Benjamin Clementine announces his final song, and even sooner the audience are on their feet demanding an encore. I am struck by the difference in his persona during his performance when you compare it to the in-between- bits… it’s a little bit like a small, shy and nervous mouse who transforms into the alpha Lion the second he hits a note on his piano and begins to sing. It’s a shame he allowed his performing character to break in between songs, creating several prolonged and awkward pauses (made all the more awkward by members of the audience shouting ‘thank you’ at him) which almost ruined the very special atmosphere his music was creating.  Even so, what he has to say as a timid mouse bears the emotional weight of something so much more: “out of attention, time and money,” he declares as he returns to the stage for an encore, “time is the most important to me. Because you have given up yours, tonight. You aren’t spending it with your boyfriends – well, maybe you are – your families or your friends. You’re here, appreciating the beautiful people around you – most of you – and the beautiful instruments. So thank you. Because time doesn’t have time for money.” And so begins an encore almost half as long as the set list that preceded it.

If I was given the opportunity to go and see him again, I would absolutely do so. There is something about his character, his performance style and show music which is so incredibly unique and special that it would be a real shame to miss out on again. Despite the somewhat awkward pauses between songs, Benjamin Clementine’s performance was great and thoroughly enjoyable. His humbleness was touching, his music emotive and his personality loveable, and I for one look forward to the next time.

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