Benjamin Clementine Lays Down A Challenge At Brixton Academy

 

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

Benjamin Clementine knows the conventions that live gigs follow. “I play, you clap,” he observes at one point during his Brixton Academy performance. So the hits from his 2015 Mercury Prize-winning debut, At Least For Now, get an airing. A generous selection of tracks from its ambitious, experimental follow-up I Tell A Fly, are slipped into the set. There’s audience participation. There’s between-song conversation. And of course there’s an encore.

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

 

But the self-described expressionist whose latest album started out as a theatre piece about two romantically entangled flies exploring the world, isn’t one for blindly following those conventions.

The first indication is the set: four TVs showing static, and roughly a dozen white mannequins positioned around the stage. (Like the people he sees, focused on their phones, shutting out reality, “they don’t laugh, they don’t talk, they’re just dumb,” he laments by way of explanation.)

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

Not there just for show, they play an integral part in the performance. A cherub is held aloft and serenaded throughout One Awkward Fish, with its references to “one Turkish boy”. A pregnant model is draped in a US flag and addressed during the intergalactic Jupiter. Most are knocked over and dismembered as Quintessence relays the message “They say you must become an animal/ Or the animal to protect us/ The good animal and so we go to war”.

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

Just as unexpectedly, midsong he distills the buoyant By The Ports Of Europe down to a chant before leading his bassist and drummer around the auditorium, still chanting as they make their way through the sea of people back to the stage.

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

Quite unusually for a venue synonymous with sweaty rock and dance concerts, he begins the encore by reading page one of The Selfish Giant, complete with all the voices and special emphasis on the sentence “So he built a high wall round [his garden].”

Even something as banal as the mass singalong becomes extraordinary, as the singer/songwriter/pianist/poet quite literally conducts the audience with his hands, while offering very specific instructions on the exact syllables that need to be emphasised or drawn out.

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

Theatrical yes, but this is not a show of self-indulgence or pretension. A playful laugh is never far off, whether he’s encouraging participation (“imagine you’re singing We Are The Champions”) or wrapping up his earnest explanation of the set design with a self-effacing “but it’s still quite weird”.

Clementine’s music can be quite weird too. There are elegant show tunes, like the avant-garde Better Sorry Than A Safe and anthemic London, that show off his talents as a musician and the majesty of a voice that’s been compared to Nina Simone and ANOHNI.

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

But there are also sudden, daring moments of transformation and dissonance. The protean Phantom of Aleppoville is six minutes of changes in time and intensity, from tranquil piano interludes to velvet jazz via a frenetic drum and bass workout, and fierce outbursts of screeches and howls.

Lyrically he offers little respite either, unflinchingly tackling issues like the refugee camps of Calais, bullying, Syria, immigration, war, and alienation. These are topics that can’t be ignored, just like the performer himself. A unique talent, Clementine is clearly hopeful that, unlike the mannequins up on stage, his audience be engaged, aware, and up for the challenge of a live gig like no other.

Benjamin Clementine live at O2 Academy Brixton (Paul Lyme)

Live review of Benjamin Clementine @ O2 Brixton Academy by Nils van der Linden on 5th December 2017. Concert photography by Paul Lyme.


 

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