The O2 Academy is transformed into a classical recital hall for Benjamin Clementine’s first ever appearance in Leeds. The floors, once sticky with spilt beer and sweat, are lined with 400+ chairs. A grand piano takes centre stage and is uncannily surrounded by naked and faceless mannequins. Clementine will later reveal that they represent passers- ones that he encountered while busking on the Parisian streets – stoic, silent, absorbed by their phones and avoiding human interaction. There is no support band, only the buzz of chatter as the audience apprehensively observe the scene before them.
Clementine’s performance is both overtly theatrical and politically charged. Interspersed with clips of harrowing news reports, the set takes the form of a poignant refugee narrative. Arriving onstage barefooted and wearing matching boiler suits, Clementine and his backing musicians dive straight into new album To Tell A Fly with no introduction. Throughout the set, the group become refugees themselves as they chant, weave through the audience and emerge from the Calais jungle. The more unusual, Avant-Garde tracks are surreal as Clementine showcases his impressive vocal range and piercing falsetto on ‘By the Ports of Europe’ and ‘Phantom of Aleppoville.’ Recent single ‘Jupiter’ sees Clementine shroud a pregnant mannequin with an American flag and the musician is set on making his political statement resonate with the audience. In a moment of relief, he produces a copy of Oscar Wilde and reads an extract from The Selfish Giant aloud in a thinly veiled dig at “somebody else who has recently built a big wall.”
It soon becomes clear that Clementine is not prepared for the northern crowd. After awkwardly referencing the cold weather, he seems affronted when an audience member jokes that he should “just put on some socks.” After a brief interlude, filled with applause, Clementine returns to the stage alone to deliver the stirring ‘London’ and a handful of tracks from his award-winning debut. We leave feeling in awe of Benjamin Clementine’s craft, if not slightly overwhelmed by his politicised performance.
All Images by Ben Hutchinson (http://www.benhutchinsonphotography.co.uk/)