Benjamin Francis Leftwich // York Minster // 29.3.19
“Are we allowed to play?” Billie Marten whispered to the audience as the Minster bells interrupted the start of her performance. Her question accurately reflected the uncomfortable sentiments of the audience, who responded with a smattering of quiet laughs.
Performing in a working religious building elicits a feeling of intrusion for both the audience and musicians. Traditionally, music spaces act to facilitate a dialogue, whereby the audience’s voice performs a fundamental role in shaping a concert or gig experience. The performers and audience actively respond, shaping the atmosphere of the space and setting the tone. The appropriation of the hallowed space of the Minster seemed almost an act of sacrilege, resulting in one of the most unusual musical experiences I have ever attended.
The Minster silenced the audience, removing the power they usually hold within a gig; nobody sang, nobody drank, nobody even conferred with their friends. Instead, the audience acted as they would attending a mass, in rapt religious attention. The spotlight being reserved entirely for the musicians and the Cathedral.
The space establishes itself as a third omniscient presence within both of the musicians’ music; their voices echoed endlessly through the Cathedral space, the weight of the history of the building resting on every lyric. The unbalancing of this power balance results in power conferred entirely to the artists, the space and the audience challenging them to fill the atmosphere that the monumental building emanates.
Benjamin has a gorgeous voice, that much is undeniable, glimpses of his potential dynamic vocal range existed as the scattered highlights of his performance. Performing songs from his new album Gratitude, Benjamin struggles to overcome the same problems in his live performance that plague the album itself.
Shifting his sound from the folky acoustic oeuvre to one of a more folk-electronic sound, Benjamin’s experimentation with melodic synths and use of a vocoder signal welcome developments in the musician’s evolving sound. Unfortunately, his voice and production promise a gravitas that his lyricism fails to live up to. Lyrics such as those on ‘Butterfly Culture’, “We play and we pray to god/That the girl in that dress will undress” evidence a lyrical immaturity in his craft, that at the age of 29 I am not certain he can excuse. Perhaps in a usual gig venue, such depthless lyrics can be covered by the soundscape he creates, but in the Minster, his verse echoed uncomfortably around the hall. His bland lyricism and muted vocal palette failed to captivate and I found myself longing for the return of his support act, Billie Marten.
Billie’s opening performance was the highlight of the evening. When the two musicians are juxtaposed, it becomes immediately clear that Billie’s writing has reached a level of depth that Benjamin appears to be missing. She is by no means revolutionising the murmery-acoustic wheel, Laura Marling and Daughter being obvious antecedents. But her singing and lyricism display an unflinching honesty, a sound that reaches the audiences even through the clichéd, well-established genre framework. Her hauntingly beautiful voice projects a life of its own, owning the space in a way that Benjamin never manages to match.
Leaving the venue I heard more people enamoured by the magnificence of the Minster than speaking on Benjamin’s performance. While Billie successfully drew us into her world, I was left with the feeling that Benjamin failed to do the venue justice, “I have never played a gig quite like this” he confided to the crowd – maybe there is a good reason for that.
I cycled home listening to Billie Marten’s debut album, Writing of Blues and Yellows, for those who enjoy the work of her peers, it is an album worth delving into.