Benjamin Clementine, Munich, 19 November 2017

We first encountered Benjamin Clementine as winner of the Mercury Prize in 2015. We sat through the BBC4 awards show with its cod-suspense. We quickly purchased the winning album, At Least For Now, and we entered a world of alienation, busking in Paris, discovery and extraordinary vocal and piano ranges wonderfully unsymmetrical. This was extended somewhat when we saw him play the Somerset House summer concert in 2016. He was then taciturn, thoughtful, shy and beguiling.

The anticipation of the new album, I tell a Fly (left), was high. To read that his record company had sought a conventional album; i.e. commercial, and he had effectively told them it was either his album and not their’s, only added to the anticipation. The album, largely about refugees (and flies), does not disappoint. The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis’ review can be found here. Though I imagine the record company was less than delighted. Where are the love songs?

He then appeared on Later with Jools Holland October 2017; a necessary launchpad for a new work. His performance was, to say the least, unusual. He was joined by his long-term percussionist collaborator, Alexis Bossard and a bunch of clothes-less mannequins. They seemed like a major distraction; not least because some of them were children. So, on entering the auditorium of the 2700-seat Munich Gasteig, a shiver went down my spine when 13 mannequins, the majority representing pregnant women, were dotted around the stage.

On time, Clementine walked on stage and waited like a conductor for silence attention, before starting his unaccompanied intro (right). He was then joined by the percussionist and bass guitarist. Interestingly, he started with a song from his first album, Condolence. Maybe a crowd-pleaser before embarking on his themed segment – One awkward fish, By the Ports of Europe, God save the jungle and Phantom of Aleppo/Billy the bully. All great songs and delivered note-perfect. It is the commentary that is troubling. It’s not the content, per se. This is an album about refugees, outsiderism and war. The violence meted out in Aleppo is clearly important and his engagement with the child-representing mannequins act as a visual prop. And presumably the mannequined pregnant women the children yet to be born? His own explanation is that they represent time. That left me a shade confused.

Once through this section, we got another extended address in preparation for his song, I won’t complain. This is a tour to make money. The Gasteig is not an intimate venue. It was about two-thirds full. Before returning to the UK the tour has two more concert halls to add to the previous night’s Elb Philharmonie (left) in Hamburg, about which he had much to say. It cost a lot of money. It had no food. This latter point seemed to be a metaphor. It was expensive to get in. So why had he played there? Presumably to make as much money as possible. The album’s non-commercial content probably means that the value is in live performance? Maybe just a contradiction?

After 90 minutes, off they went to rapturous applause. And then back for a three-song encore – Ave dreamer, Box of stones (be prepared to sing along) and finally – and with hindsight not surprisingly –  Nemesis.

This concert has troubled me. I was not entertained. I trust Clementine didn’t intend me to be entertained. He’s a man on a mission, and it’s one that I wholly endorse. But three things I can say. First, the songs speak loud enough on their own. Second, the mannequins, take them away. Third, my partner who shared the experience with me that night does not share my analysis and discomfort. This is not written to put anyone off going to see him, indeed before the tour ends, the show will be performed in Brighton, UK, the town in which I work. We are still deliberating whether to go to see him.

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