Review: Benjamin Clementine @ The Lowry, Salford

The lights drew down in the tightly packed, cosy concert hall; all for but one solitary beam which was caught by the glinting steel stool standing in isolation.

Then a tall, slight, Dracula-esque figure floated in from stage left, bare foot, and took his place behind the Steinway grand.

His appearance was powerful, and he dominated the stage.

Almost in recognition of this, a deathly hush swept through the room, only to be broken by a trickle of fragile notes.

Gone, a dreamlike journey around Benjamin’s childhood environment opened up the set, and from here the room was his; this was something special.

By his own admission, he said he doesn’t talk much, but this was not about anecdotal chit chat in between songs; this was purely about the music.

“I play you clap, I play you clap and so it repeats. And that’s it. Thank you for clapping.”

There is no ego about this man, he plays as though it’s his first time and the audience can feel that; they respond to it.

From here, with the help of drummer Alexis Bossard who came in and out intermittently, he moved on to single Condolence, the first opportunity to hear the full force of Benjamin’s baritone.

The range of his voice is quite astonishing and despite having seen dozens of videos of his performances, it must be witnessed first-hand to fully comprehend.

The set moved seamlessly, clap, ‘thank you’, clap, whistle, ‘thank you’, clap; with the clear impression that Benjamin was left unsure what to do when faced with such appreciation and adulation.

He is the personification of humble.

Nemesis’ up tempo chord structure is typical of Benjamin’s ability to keep audiences off balance and always guessing.

His voice once again roared, swallowed by the cloak of darkness which encapsulated the room; a man of such tender years should not have so much command.

Last month Benjamin won the Mercury Prize for album of the year and based upon this performance and the catalogue of heartbreakingly uplifting masterpieces, it is hard to complain.

His home city of London, from which he had been estranged in his early 20s as he made his way in Paris, is a touch stone for his music and an obvious well of inspiration; Edmonton is an example of this.

I Won’t Complain was perhaps the standout moment of the evening; a heart wrenchingly optimistic piece which I dare say caused more than a few tears to be shed.

The darkness lifted for a moment on Benjamin’s request, as he wrestled with the light engineer to make him feel more at home.

He looked into the newly lit distance and seemingly into the eyes of every person there, “That’s better. Hello.”

Then as he began perhaps his best known hit, Cornerstone and personal favourite of mine the room returned to its eerie gloom.

And despite my bias it was the perfect way to end what was a truly wonderful show, or so I thought.

“That’s it,” he said with a look of both confusion and bemusement spread across his face.

Then something strange happened, he began to talk to the audience asking how our days were and soon being told that he was not in Manchester anymore but Salford; a clear distinction.

“I wasn’t prepared for this,” he said as he sunk back into his modest, reserved self.

After receiving concern over his posture and being corrected over his geographical confusion he returned to the piano and played a final song.

Bendy Busses, a sharp up take in the tempo, his apparent haphazard and spontaneous style was reminiscent of Nina Simone and one could be forgiven for thinking that he was making it up on the spot.

The song ended and in his familiar affable air he apologised for the briefness of the set.

“Excuse us; we were unable to play a full set tonight. There are no strings. Strings are expensive. This (pointing to the suitably black Steinway) is expensive. Excuse us.”

However, this meant that the crowd was treated to several new songs yet to be recorded; a fair deal I think and so did everyone else.

The crowd rose and whistled, clapped and cheered; they wanted more. And again, he did not disappoint.

He returned and played three more songs each as beautiful as the next.

One of them curiously called Adios, which made me think for a moment that perhaps this was all a plan.

Another question left unanswered by Mr Clementine.

His actual final song (then third of the night) was fittingly called London.

It closed the curtain on what was the perfect show.

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