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Benjamin Clementine review – unvarnished, unpredictable and fantastically awkward

Sweeping grace and gravitas: Benjamin Clementine performing in Edinburgh.
Sweeping grace and gravitas: Benjamin Clementine performing in Edinburgh. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns

When Benjamin Clementine eventually pads on stage barefoot and perches on a high stool at his grand piano, it’s in complete darkness that has descended on the theatre long enough to leave audience members sniggering in discomfort. But even without the preceding half-hour delay caused by technical issues, this show would have felt fantastically awkward.

It’s the first live airing in Britain of songs from Clementine’s second album due for release in September, I Tell a Fly, a rumination on migrants, refugees and displacement, musically inspired by Erik Satie and Isao Tomita. It may confound anyone looking for more of the dramatically surging torch songs that characterised his Mercury prize-winning debut, At Least for Now.

Backed by a three-piece band in blue boiler suits, and behind them a five-strong female chorus in white boiler suits who dance theatrically during the uptempo bits – all of them barefoot, too – when the ex-homeless troubadour breaks into his first song By the Ports of Europe, a baroque pop oddity with the feel of an avant-garde musical number, it’s with sweeping grace and gravitas. With its mannered singing and celestial references to an “alien passing by wishing everyone peace”, Jupiter can’t help but invoke Bowie; Awkward Fish could be Kid A Radiohead sung by Anohni, underpinned by a splintered drum beat, bassline and ambient drones.

And yet the music is sharply juxtaposed throughout the evening with weird and funny conversational tangents. It’s hard to tell if Clementine, dressed in a ruffled lace cape, is squirming with nerves or simply enjoying throwing his public off balance. For a man who speaks so softly it’s as if he’s scared of his own voice – and who sings as if he’s trying to rip his voice in two – Clementine speaks a lot, including ad-libbing over the closing bars of Paris Cor Blimey about how the delay at the start sapped his adrenaline and now he’s scared we’ll “tell people I’m shit”.

His fans like to speak back, too. One man holds up the show to give a lengthy explanation of how Clementine “resonates” with him, at the end of which the singer deadpans: “Anyone else?” Later there’s a hilariously bizarre passage in which a woman persistently insists on telling Clementine she’s from Aberfeldy, to which Clementine responds by improvising a song in her honour that goes on longer than it probably should.

Perhaps inevitably, all the hold-ups lead to his set being cut short. But not before I Won’t Complain has delivered the kind of majestic, stripped-back, tremblingly beautiful moment most people probably came expecting more of, and Ave Dreamer has dispatched a last flourish of harpsichord and lush choral exuberance. They earn this rare, unvarnished and unpredictable artist the standing ovation he deserves.

This article titled "Benjamin Clementine review – unvarnished, unpredictable and fantastically awkward" was written by Malcolm Jack, for The Guardian on Friday 11 August 2017 01.13pm

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