Singer-songwriter and Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine gave a wholly forgettable performance June 12 at the Cedar Cultural Center. Whether the Mercury Prize, a BBC-sponsored honor, is awarded by jury or some other process, if Clementine is any indication, it should be given away at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks.
The night was, in a nutshell, a numbing I-could’ve-had-a-V8 experience. From the moment Benjamin Clementine finished his first song. Sitting at the piano, mouth pressed to the microphone, he silently moved his lips giving the impression — had you not just heard him singing — that the sound was dead.
Then, he proceeded to mumble distractedly, eyes wandering. This was a sign of things to come, as his idea of stage presence consists of vaguely coherent inanities verging on daft ramblings and odd facial expressions, interspersed with coyly self-impressed mugging that reads, “Look at me. I’m being eccentric.” Professionalism has absolutely nothing to do with his presentation.
For instance, he stopped his second number, in the middle of a verse, to complain about the monitor — something anyone doing so much as an opening mic, much less a North American tour, would’ve had the sense to handle during sound check. Later, he stopped the show to comment that people opening and closing the side doors distracted him with the light that spilled in from the lobby. So, the house lights had to be brought up some. Later, there was the shameless, insufferably amateurish fishing for praise when, near the close of evening, he entreated, “Should I stop? Or should I do more?”
As for the performer’s actual artistry, there isn’t so much as a saving grace. His is a serviceable enough voice with clear tonality. But there was nothing distinctively out of the ordinary, except for his idea of originality which primarily consists of projecting to the point of near-yelling and over-utilizing echoing notes until it comes off as a slick gimmick.
He’s a pedestrian pianist whose highlight hat trick is occasionally tickling an exercise ten other musicians with an inkling of classical background can do as a warm-up before they get serious. The melodies are pleasant but don’t do very much and tend toward the repetitious. They are matched with generally indecipherable lyrics which, when they are understood, don’t make the first bit of sense. As in “the more you hate me/the more you help me/the more you love me the more you hurt me.” Or his ersatz reverie that entails Ancient Greek philosophers visiting “my Paris flat.” On the whole, Clementine’s repertoire is a quirky, musical equivalent of pointless installation art — the kind comprised of, say, bent car fenders and wrought iron fences welded together at odd angles to represent make some sort of so-called statement.
A noxious low point came with him name-dropping to claim he’s influenced by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and laundry of others. Which was bad enough, but, he had the temerity to inform the audience, “I don’t like Prince.” Since nobody asked, the polite, not to mention decent, thing to do would be to simply not mention the Minneapolis native son at all in the city where he’s revered and his passing is still being lamented. He could not have exercised poorer taste.
There is no accounting for the standing ovation Benjamin Clementine received at the end of the evening. This reviewer was simply glad it was all over and headed for the door in case there was an encore.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.