Benjamin Clementine, Somerset House, 9 July 2016

It was a quiet Friday evening. BBC Four was hosting the announcement of the Mercury Prize, a music prize for a  best – non-mainstream – album. We watched. The shortlist was long – something like 12 acts. The countdown profiled all of the shortlisted acts; some of the music was also performed live. It turned out to be a good way to relax on a Friday evening.

20160709_214019The unanimous winner was Benjamin Clementine (left). And with good reason. His debut album, At Least for Now, showcases his talent. His live performances demonstrate mastery of his art, genre and the stage. He’s 28. Away from his songs he seems very shy – though he interacts gracefully with an appreciative audience. He has a range in his voice unmatched amongst his peers (he is apparently a spinto tenor). His songs are asymmetrical, autobiographical and even angelic (in his song Adios he tells of angels singing to him which he the mimics for our benefit, just in case we do not know how angels sound).

He arrived on stage on time at 2100 (Somerset House imposes a 2230 curfew). He is preceded on stage by the Heritage Orchestra (a bit of it, at least) and his enigmatic French percussionist, Alexis Bossard (below right). He arrives enveloped in his trademark overcoat, surveys the stage as though it is his first time and is surprised to see an orchestra. He then perches on his stool at some peculiar angle for piano playing. Then he plays.

The set draws heavily on his album. Some of the songs are arranged for strings, others not. Condolence is one of the stringed songs. It is a20160709_213036 curious song dichotomising forgetting and remembering, nothingness and something: “And then out of nothing, out of absolutely nothing, I, Benjamin, I was born, so that when I become someone one day, I will always remember that I came from nothing.” The condolence builds into a crescendo. Marvellous.

Clementine came from a middle-class south London musical family with lots of time spent listening to classical music – apparently after he got bored with pop music. He started playing the piano at 11 years and is self-taught (difficult to believe, but this man is exceptional). A family breakdown resulted in him moving to Paris where he busked, slept in hostels and was eventually discovered by an impresario (this has Edith Piaf’s biography all over it). His time in Paris is celebrated, presumably, in his ditty St Clementine-on-tea- and-Croissants. London beckons a return, however: “London is calling you, what are you waiting for, what are you searching for?”

Benjamin_Clementine3Nemesis tells us to “Treat others the way you want to be treated. Remember your days are fully numbered”, whilst Cornerstone pricks us about loneliness amongst others and even lovers. And Gone reminds us how fleeting the present is “oh brother, when did you get married?”.

I counted two new songs, one of which, Clementine reassured the musicians was not on the playlist. He had clearly been thinking about Brexit and composed a song that, in the first instance, maintained a balance between leaving and staying (in a metaphorical sense), but journeyed towards the realisation that we may have given way to a “little In-ger-land” located somewhere in the middle of a disinterested USA. Maybe that is the European in him? From my own experience, it is what the Germans think.

Pictures: from Somerset (work of someone close).

b/w image, Clementine’s own work c2011, Paris.

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