Arts: Play it again, Ben

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The Independent Culture
IT SEEMS odd that lyrics such as "Please take off your clothes" comes easily to the 20-year-old singer-songwriter, Ben Lee, but the loss of a shirt button prompts a furious flush of embarrassment.

"This is truly unexpected," he gibbered. "I cannot continue with my shirt hanging open." A chorus of whoops in the audience suggested otherwise, but Lee was clearly uncomfortable and asked for a new one.

Unfortunately, this was not the only difficulty that he encountered. Lee arrived on stage to find half the audience sitting cross-legged on the floor, as if re-enacting a scene from Sixties' Haight-Ashbury, and it wasn't until after his second track that he plucked up the courage to ask them to stand up. His desire to stand at the front of the stage was also hampered by crackling feedback, while on one occasion he had to call a halt to proceedings in order to tune his guitar. However - even if the clumsy nature of Lee's set was occasionally difficult to watch - it was utterly engaging.

Lee's extraordinary vocal range added much-needed weight to his songs. The mainstream catchiness of his album, Breathing Tornadoes, can be grating, but Lee revealed a pleasing graininess to his voice that belied his years, and infused the material with earth-shattering intensity.

This depth of feeling was also displayed in his curious stage antics. You feared for Lee's safety throughout "Cigarettes Will Kill You" as he spun round on his heels, causing his guitar lead to wrap tightly around his ankles, while his ungainly attempts at dancing were enough to make the notoriously goofy Beck look slickly choreographed.

Like Beck, Lee is in possession of an unfashionable enthusiasm for performance - to the point of sometimes forgetting his surroundings. As he wrapped himself around the microphone and balanced his guitar on his head during "Ship My Body Home", he could have been a schoolboy becoming carried away in front of the mirror in the privacy of his bedroom. You felt that you weren't supposed to be privy to such adolescent melodrama, yet it was disarmingly moving.

One imagines Lee's youthful enthusiasm will soon be squashed as relentless touring takes its toll. Indeed, his songs might actually benefit from a bit of adult cynicism. But this precocious musician's unwavering belief in the power of live performance - albeit with a decidedly creaky guitar - made for one of the most fresh and most compelling shows this year.

Fiona Sturges