On Sunday, I saw David Byrne perform live at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. The tour was to support his latest studio album American Utopia which was his first solo studio release since 2004’s Grown Backwards. Being a Talking Heads fan, I was eager to see Byrne perform. Though I wasn’t that familiar with his work outside of Talking Heads, I knew there would be enough of his old band’s material to justify me going. Plus, he promised an innovative performance so that piqued my interest.
However, this week’s blog post isn’t about Byrne or his concert or his latest album. As part of my structure for the blog, I don’t repeat an artist once I write an entry with them at the center. Also, it varies how I approach these things. It could be an event I saw, a general feeling I’m experiencing, profiling an artist I enjoy, or a commentary on what is happening in the news. It all depends on how I feel. Before going to the show, it would’ve been likely I would end up writing about Byrne. However, I’ll save him for another day because I want to talk about his opening act.
When I bought the tickets, I had no idea Byrne would have a tour opener. I generally forget about tickets for things several months away because I have other life things to focus on. This also helps in keeping me away from spoilers. I don’t like spoilers or knowing too much about a show or performance. So, I’ll typically avoid setlists or reviews or anything that provides context and information on the show. That’s why I didn’t know Benjamin Clementine was the opening act.
I was not familiar with Benjamin Clementine nor did I recognize his name. I happened to walk into a store the day of the David Byrne concert and see his name. He appeared on it wearing a dapper suit and stood against a solid gray background. The text on the poster read that Clementine was touring for his new album with David Byrne. What was funny was that the text read “Benjamin Clementine with David Byrne” and that Byrne’s name was smaller and popped less than Clementine’s name. I found the humor in such boldness to position yourself as top-billed for a tour where you’re the supporting act. I enjoyed it.
That poster still didn’t tell me anything about Clementine and I was too busy to look him up. I had things to do before meeting with my friend at the show. Plus, I was more focused on Byrne anyway. That was who I shelled out hard earned cash to see anyway.
I met my friend and we took our seats that were way up in the gallery of the Auditorium Theatre. The balcony area below us was quite a drop and the makeshift railing held by pipes and vice grips didn’t seem too sturdy as patrons grabbed and shook it to keep steady until they found their seats. Also, the ambient rain and thunder noises playing in the theatre (probably curated by Byrne for pre-show ambience) didn’t help with my awareness of our position in the theatre.
On the stage was a piano, some guitars with pedals, amps, and some child-sized mannequins laying at the feet of an adult-sized mannequin draped with an American flag. Based on what I knew about Byrne’s album, I thought those props were for him. It didn’t cross my mind that they were meant for the opener.
The lights dimmer and two spotlights shone down on the piano and amps. Clementine appeared on stage wearing an open jacket and white cowboy hat. He was barefoot. He walked slowly around the stage. As he passed the instruments and mannequins, he would ring a bell at varying intervals. This went on for several minutes as droning music played in the background. This was part of the show and I intended to concentrate all my attention on it. However, my fellow peanuts in the gallery didn’t seem to care. They were there for Byrne and there was a lot of a noise and talking as they made cynical comments about the opener walking around in circles. It was funny for them, but I felt their behavior was disrespectful. So, I tried to focus on the show.
I didn’t know Clementine or his music (any mention of his songs in this post come from post-show research). He opened with a song called “Condolence” and I was immediately engaged by it. He skillfully played his piano while his bandmate played a droning guitar and activated a control board that played electronic rhythms.
Prior to the show starting, my friend told me that Clementine won the Mercury Prize for his first studio album At Least for Now which was released in 2015. Upon hearing that first song, I could hear why. Already, I could tell that Clementine was a masterful piano player. And I found that impressive. However, what I found thrilling was his voice and the delivery of his lyrics. Clementine has such a deep and soulful voice with a cadence and delivery that is reminiscent of Nina Simone. In fact, I’ll take that back. He sounded exactly what I would imagine Nina Simone would sound like if she were a tall, androgynous Englishman.
After performing “Condolence,” Clementine returned to waking circles around the set. His pace changed and he rang his bell at quicker intervals. When he returned to the piano, he played “Phantom of Aleppoville” from his 2017 studio album I Tell a Fly. This song sold me on Clementine as an artist. It opens quietly with Clementine scat singing. He goes on and he increases the dynamics of the performance until he is pounding on the piano screaming “leave me alone” to the point where your can hear the distortion and know that the soundboard was working on overtime trying to handle the various changes Clementine would go through.
Clementine only performed six songs for his opening set and he did so masterfully. I was amazed by how adventurous he was in his musicianship. He has a solid gold voice and plays the piano beautifully. He could churn out a typical pop album like Adele and become a commercial smash. However, he throws his heart in experimentalism and avant garde pop devoid of melody and combining elements of free jazz and contemporary classical. I haven’t been this impressed with an up-and-coming artist in a long time.
It was very disappointing that people were talking throughout his set. I know he wasn’t the artist they paid to see, but he was deserving of their attention because he is so talented. They found the walking around stage funny as well as Clementine kicking around a baby mannequin on stage. Granted, I didn’t know what all of it meant. But, I was still focused on what was happening because I recognized I was seeing something truly special.
In my research today, I have seen that Benjamin Clementine is making his way through music. He appeared on the Gorillaz’s 2017 album Humanz. I never listened to the whole album, so I missed him entirely. But, I’ve been listening to his second studio album I Tell a Fly non-stop. I have yet to hear his first album, but I have read I Tell a Fly is a richer departure that focuses on Clementine’s growth and continuing experimentalism. I’ll get to it eventually, but I want to be absorbed by what I heard in concert.
“Phantom of Aleppoville” was the highlight for me from his set. I’ve listened to the studio cut dozens of times. It is an amazing track for sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the live performance. That live performance was a treasure and I feel bad for the people around me who didn’t listen.
Narratively, “Phantom of Aleppoville” is about children being bullied which is a serious problem that lads to suicides and violence at home and in schools. The United States has seen a rise in school shootings and some of the shooters who live cite bullying as one of their motivations.
The song also addresses the violence children face with war-torn countries at the hands of murderous dictators. They know a unique kind of horror that isn’t known to many in our schools in America. However, the song isn’t about the differences in those experiences. It is about the similarities. The trauma they experience have different causes, but the effect is still the same.
The message really speaks to me. Whenever I am trying to get through a personal struggle or pain, one part of my healing process is to just dismiss it because other people around the world have it harder. I think Why am I complaining about something so insignificant when people are starving or being murdered by their government? It took me a long time to realize that I cannot think that way. Sure, it is great to have that kind of perspective, so I don’t become an entitled dick. However, I can’t live my life comparing myself to other people even if I am trying to focus on what is good in my life. Everyone has problems that we must work through, but it is detrimental to one’s own mental health to compare themselves to other people.
I know I am going to listen to Benjamin Clementine nonstop all week. And I am eager to see how his career evolves. I would love to see him in concert where he is the highlight people paid to see. Perhaps he’ll get the attention he deserves.