Benjamin Clementine at Brixton Academy
Bucket list item ‘see Benjamin Clementine live’: ticked. There was some anxiety involved, sure - it’s no secret that I’m a bit of a Clementine stan, and we all know the sickening disappointment of leaving a show having been let down by the quality (or lack thereof) of their performance. I’m pleased to report that Benjamin Clementine is absolutely as good as I thought he'd be; his voice is insane. But that's not to say there weren't a few surprises along the way.
You could been forgiven, upon entering Brixton Academy, for thinking you were in for one mega pretentious show. The stage was (a bit creepily) littered with mannequins: male figurines arranged as if running towards centre-stage, where pregnant female figures dominated. He tells us that they represent his generation of aliens, isolated by invisible barriers of modern society, and the all too real boundaries erected to 'control' the refugee crisis.
So far so symbolic. But for all the pomp and ceremony of the dramatic set, and despite the inherent drama of much of Clementine's music, what proceeded was a surprisingly intimate show. There was no orchestra, no choir, just Clementine, his bassist and his drummer/harpsichordist, who worked together over the course of the performance to dissolve the division between themselves and their audience. No mean feat in a venue as big as the Brixton Academy.
The first attempt at breaking down that boundary came about 30 minutes in, and isn't entirely successful. Clementine and his band members shed their instruments and began to chant, dropping off the stage down to audience-level and moving in procession through a quite bewildered crowd. It wasn’t quite clear whether we were supposed to be joining in or not, so we plumped for nervously hummed along a bit, and the moment teetered between rousing and falling flat.
Thankfully, we were given another go later on. During a moving performance of ‘Condolence’, Clementine rose from his piano stool once more and took on the role of choirmaster. He walked us through our parts, assigning a low octave to the men and a higher one to the women for ‘texture’. We weren’t elongating our vowels enough first time around, so he beseeched us kindly to do it again until, suddenly, he was in control of a thousands-strong choir. I sang so loudly I had to delete the Instagram story I made of it…
In those moments, Clementine’s powerful stage presence came to the fore. Of all things about this show, I think that’s maybe what surprised me most. He's incredibly quiet and reflective in interview, and although the first half seemed to corroborate that preconception, by the second half it had become evident that his quietness isn’t down to shyness, but rather an irreverence for the standard conventions of a live show.
Indeed, Clementine seems remarkably comfortable on stage, and his growth in confidence over the course of his second album cycle has emboldened him in the execution of his vision. In a small way, when he got us all to sing together, he succeeded in breaking down a few of the barriers he concerns himself with on I Tell A Fly (I don't ordinarily shout-sing in stranger's ears I don't know about you), and for just a moment that felt really freeing.
Find another Benjamin Clementine performance here.