Review: Benjamin Clementine, Edinburgh International Festival, Festival Theatre

Forty minutes after the advertised start time, and the only audible sounds emanating from the Festival Theatre’s PA were the obnoxious distortions of a soundcheck gone wrong.

The crowd were beginning to get restless at the thought of this delay turning a pleasant evening into a late night. Just as glasses were running dry and hushed conversations were turning into open discussions, in the nick of time, on walked the band.

Initially charming the Parisian arts scene before becoming a festival favourite throughout Europe, Benjamin Clementine is now an experienced performer – one who has spent many years refining his craft. His debut EP, Cornerstone, was released back in 2013 and while it saw his popularity increase dramatically throughout France and her mainland neighbours, the UK remained mostly oblivious to his work. It wasn’t until debut album At Least For Now won the Mercury Music Prize that the British public finally awoke to his talents.

Clementine walked on stage and sat assuredly at his signature instrument. Despite the introduction of three supporting musicians, with his grand piano forward and dead centre it was evidently clear who we were there to see.

With no pause for preparation and catching the entire theatre off guard, the four piece erupted. Clementine hammered his piano, half sitting, half standing; cowering over its keys. He bellowed, howled and aggressively serenaded the audience into a willing submission. His voice was elegant, authoritative, urgent, and at times, ever so slightly deranged. He delivered his lyrics with the anguish of a pastor on judgement day.

His drummer showed no restraint and filled the Festival Theatre with his polyrhythmic attack – stadium-pitched fills aplenty and a kick drum that almost felt inappropriate given the esteemed surroundings.

The bassist delivered an overdriven foundation, effortlessly following Clementine’s idiosyncrasies as the keyboard player threw the distinctive ramblings of a harpsichord on top of the mix. Five uniformed and synchronized singers chanted in perfect unison, creating choral harmonies of  primal intensity.

The performance was cacophonous, impassioned, appeared strictly rehearsed, and was blisteringly loud. The lights were then cut and the stage fell silent.

Clementine is on the verge of releasing his much anticipated second album, I Tell A Fly, a record he has described as his most ambitious yet. It’s a record he hopes will help the UK understand his wider artistic vision.

Clementine follows his seismic starter, Phatmon Of Allepoville, with three more songs taken from the new record and the audience are made quickly aware of the formula. Thick, modal harmonies and subtle vocal processing accompany Clementine’s apocalyptic voice – call and response is used to full primeval effect as his piano and the drumkit have a repeated, heated argument.

With so much demanding attention, Clementine still holds all of it – he commands the stage, playing bandmaster, the wandering nomad between various sets of keys, an almost malevolent air to him. At times it was like stumbling into a villain’s lair only to find him and his musical minions mid freak out. Clementine’s choice of feathered cape only reinforced this image.

In a humorous contrast to his powerful singing voice, between songs all the audience come to expect from Clementine is a delicate, almost inaudible “Thank you”. Four songs in and the spirit of the International Festival must have possessed our star as he suddenly felt compelled to take a break from the music and ‘work the crowd’.

Giving any audience member the opportunity to talk about themselves is dangerous enough, but do it in Edinburgh, in August, and you have a recipe for derailment. After awkward monologues, stalled responses, some tedious chat with a woman from Aberfeldy leading to an impromptu song about said woman from Aberfeldy, the concert had somewhat stalled. Clementine was evidently aware of having indulged his social side for too long. “I’d really rather just get back to the music,” he said.

The band then fired into London, his first song after this extended interlude and the first of the evening to be taken from his debut. Slouched at his piano, with one hand keeping steady arpeggios as the other motioned passionately to the audience, he was the essence of cool. That is until he fell over his words in the first verse bringing the song to a clumsy halt. “See, I’ve fucked up” said Clementine. Looking visibly uneasy with the mistake he took some time to recompose himself before completing the song far more conservatively than before. Gone were the dramatic hand actions, gone was the nonchalance.

The following songs, Condolence and Nemesis, also felt a little disjointed. Where before the big rhythm section felt essential, here it felt obstructive, detracting from the compositions rather than augmenting them. The choral accompaniment became under utilised and the awe-struck in the first half felt heavily diluted by the second.

With Ave Dreamer the whole cast delivered a stronger sense of cohesion and reminded us that we were not at a Benjamin Clementine concert – we were at a mass conversion. Consider us believers, Benjamin – whatever your wider artistic vision, the Brits are on board.

Words: Reuben Tobias Hodkin

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