Tuesday, 26 July 2016

‘He stuns you by degrees’: Benedict Benjamin at The Harrison Folkroom


Benedict Benjamin takes the stage like a slightly awkward sixth former surprised to be receiving a prize at Speech Day. But he interacts with the audience in the easy, charming and affable manner of one accustomed to the spotlight. His polite soft-spokenness itself commands attention, particularly in the intimate setting of the basement of the Harrison Pub on a Wednesday night.

The songs similarly start in a quietly unassuming manner and you might anticipate some mildly toe-tapping pleasant folk fare, his voice pretty but a little brittle like an overnight frost glittering on a morning field. But then it unexpectedly swells into a potent, full-bodied instrument that soars and swoops like a flock of starlings involved in their mysterious manoeuvres in the sky. The sound is lush and spacious, captivating and other, with choruses that swirl round your head in triumphant crescendos. You're swept up as by a wave crashing on a beach, transported to another realm, carried away on the tide.


The first time I experienced this beguiling effect was when Benjamin supported the North Carolina folk duo Mandolin Orange at the Borderline. It was like witnessing a nightclub act in a David Lynch movie, deep scarlet velvet curtains and all, at times as if he were channelling Roy Orbison or Bobby Vinton in some beautiful and haunting homage, conjuring up adolescent sweethearts clinging to each other for the last dance at some long ago school hop (‘I Would Like to See You Tonight’, ‘Coward’).

Melodies edged with melancholy showcase lyrics that demonstrate an honest and mature self-awareness, rather like those of a young (and old) Ray Davies, someone who’s recognised and come to reluctant terms with their own weaknesses and foibles.

There is a dividing line
Cutting through the will and the design
There is who I’d like to be and who I am
I'm the sum of choices made
I'm the sum of errors and mistakes
There is who I’d like to be and who I am
 (from ‘Thin Skin’)

Benjamin characterises these resonant, passionate, confessional songs as ‘depressing’ but in fact their very intensity renders them strangely uplifting and cathartic. The refrains of ‘Thin Skin’, ‘Change Your Mind’, ‘Had What You Had’, ‘My Feet Have No Need for the Ground’ entwine themselves into your memory like cats around your ankles and you find yourself humming them for days after.

Like a dead or dying star
Still present in the night
There’s a love inside my heart
That will not yield its light
Like a song or symphony
Whose melody remains
long after the singer’s tongue
has sung its last refrain
(from ‘Love That’s Left Behind’ 

Setlist as far as I knew it
Move on Those Tired Feet
Change Your Mind
Thin Skin
[Illegible note - may have been
I Would Like to See You]
Feet Have No Need
How Weak and Unguarded
Had What You Had
Love Left Behind

Hardest Thing
Something in My Blood
benedictThe venue in Harrison Street, just off Gray’s Inn Road, was an ideal fit for this once a fortnight event, and I couldn't really recommend it more. Three (or even four) acts and it’s all free – what's not to like? It’s worth getting there an hour or so early to enjoy a vegan stew in the bar beforehand too. Find out more here.

Benedict Benjamin’s album Night Songs is on CD now.

Here’s a poem about ‘Waterloo Sunset’, a song tinged with a similar sense of pathos.

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