Benjamin Clementine emerged on stage at the Bluebird Theater last night, July 21, shirtless and shoeless, with only a suit jacket and pants covering his tall body. While fans might have expected this ensemble, Clementine offered elements of the unexpected in his set — most notably, his humor. He kept the audience swaying with eyes closed during songs, and kept us laughing in between with his subtle British humor. Clementine's performance offered the reliability of his steady musicianship and unanticipated dialogue between.
Clementine’s first album, At Least for Now, was released last April, but the London-based singer-songwriter-composer is in no stranger to performing. His past is as rich as his knowing music suggests, including stints of homelessness in Paris, where his piano performances around the city earned him a reputation as a local character.
These days, his performance depends largely on his ability to tell compelling stories about the concepts of home, moving forward and growing older. His stage presence carries a simplistic artistry, a testament to Clementine’s whole aesthetic. Sitting on a simple metal stool in front of a sleek, black grand piano, he had nothing but his voice and the keys at his disposal, but it was enough to saturate the whole theater with sound.
While his speaking voice is quiet, his singing voice is immense. He hits low notes like Nina Simone — a beautiful, steady, open-mouthed bellow, while his high notes are hit like Eartha Kitt, shaking with a shrill pulse when drawn out.
At times he would thrust his entire body into the keys — all six feet and three inches of him rising and falling as his hands rose up and crashed down on the piano with complete precision. Other times, he filled the room with dense, unwavering sound with just one hand on the keys, the other gesturing toward the crowd as he told story after story.
At the end of each song, Clementine returned to his quiet speeches to the crowd, assuming the role of the out-of-town Londoner, still entertained and confused by American mannerisms. He addressed the audience as American. “Hello, American,” he would say. “Thank you, Americans.” He made understated comments about the Republican Party from an amused outsider’s perspective, laughing at the country’s choices with no disagreement voiced from the crowd. He discussed the silly ways that Americans have adapted the English language, coining words like “awesome,” “sick” and “cool” that the artist found curious. But despite his jokes being largely at the expense of the crowd, his fans found him enormously charming.
A sort of zen filled the auditorium. When audience members yelled, they yelled, “Thank you!” Phones were kept in pockets and purses. Beer was sipped, not guzzled. As the lights rose and one woman began her walk home, she looked at her husband and said, “He’s special.” Such a simple, innocuous comment, and one unlikely to be refuted.