When piano-playing virtuoso Benjamin Sainte-Clémentine, known to fans as Benjamin Clementine, accepted the Mercury Prize in 2015, he used his moment, in a show of solidarity, to dedicate his win to a Paris in mourning. A capital reeling after a savage terror attack on its Bataclan theatre just a week before; a city that had made an artist flaneur of him.
Two years later, Clementine’s call for cross-border solidarity is even more stirring, richer and bolder. Last month, Colston Hall hosted the final night of the 29-year-old’s tour of progressive second album I Tell A Fly, in which Clementine ramped up his role as musically-unpredictable political poet. This was a head-opening, thought-provoking show, spent on tenterhooks.
This was a head-opening, thought-provoking show, spent on tenterhooks
Told from the perspective of two flies in love against a backdrop of international conflict, I Tell A Fly (released September 2017) shines its haunting light on close-to-home, humanitarian disaster, and our response to it.
From the conflict in Syria, to the simultaneous reality-allegory of a child crushed by bullying (in Phantom of Aleppoville). From the handling of the refugee-migrant crisis (By The Ports Of Europe) to the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp (God Save The Jungle), Clementine forces the audience to take a full-faced, full-hearted look. Setting out to shake and wake us was the rule of the night. And all played out on a stage dressed with pregnant and child mannequins and vast ceiling-suspended protractors, hinting at some deconstructed, anti-perfection, anti-Vitruvian Man. You had to remind yourself to breathe.
A self-taught musician, Gorillaz collaborator and lover of Debussy and William Blake, Clementine made his name while sleeping rough on the streets of Paris
A self-taught musician, Gorillaz collaborator and lover of Debussy and William Blake, Clementine made his name while sleeping rough on the streets of Paris. Returning now to a near-sold out Colston Hall (having played The Lantern room two years previous), he and his two accompanying musicians arrived on stage bare foot, weaving silent theatre in and out of the mannequins, in navy boilersuits topped with lace, before settling at their stations. Then, an awkward and amusing silence (often commanded by the wry-smiling Clementine) before launching into the record’s opener, the clamouring Farewell Sonata.
So to the most attention-grabbing points of a full-length attention-seizing performance: For me, the first was easily By The Ports Of Europe, wherein Clementine and band abandoned the stage to advance into the crowd, acapella singing the ‘Porto Bello Bello Bello’ refrain. As they disappeared out of sight, a child mannequin the artist had identified as the forgotten ‘Turkish boy’, remained spot-lit. Holding a guilty mirror up to that easy tendency towards ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Holding a guilty mirror up to that easy tendency towards ‘out of sight, out of mind’
Another similarly beautiful moment, was in Clementine’s extended performance of Condolence, the most popular track from his first, Mercury-winning record. First it moved into Nina Simone-esque My Baby Just Cares For Me live territory, and then reverie, as he got the audience singing the track’s chorus back; first with the energy of Queen’s We Are The Champions, then in soprano.
Not forgetting how he opened the encore: with a reading from Oscar Wilde’s 1888 story The Selfish Giant, as a send-up of Trump’s inward-looking, destructive intracontinental and immigration policies.
He sings as a citizen of the world, and there is a world in his voice
That often-made comparison with Nina Simone aside, in truth, Clementine, a spinto tenor, sings like no one else. He captures language for his own, smashes it up and spits it out anew. I could hear him sing ‘Eurrrrrope’ all day long. In Phantom of Aleppoville, he gave us outbursts of chaotic opera. He creates pain and beauty and characters and dialogues. He sings as a citizen of the world, and there is a world in his voice that seems to shoot up from the ocean floor. Come back to Bristol, Benjamin!
Words by Daisy Blacklock
Photos by Ania Shrimpton