Music Features

James Blake - Music Hall of Williamsburg (12/11)

For those not entirely sure why this show meant so much,  a recap and a little context: In 2010, James Blake released 3 critically-acclaimed EPs of dubstep-flavored R&B and neo-soul, putting him on the map and led him to a second place finish (behind Jessie J) in BBC’s “Sound of 2011.” BBC was right, as Blake dropped a full-length LP that many publications, including this one, named as one of the best year, as well as two more EPs. Throughout most of 2012, however, he remained silent amidst rampant speculation about his 2nd album before announcing three intimate shows—two in his hometown of London and one in Brooklyn, suggesting that a new record may be on the way.

Blake since added another New York show (which took place the day after the one reviewed here), and the four intimate shows were his first headlining performance in over a year. Blake expressed a bit of surprise, remarking that he was quite nervous about performance and reception after being silent for so long. Listening to him play though, you would never know why. Blake’s set was a little on the short side, with just 13 songs, but it was hard to complain as he performed the expected cuts from the James Blake LP, a great selection of cuts from the EP, and of course, a handful of new songs.

Entering the stage with drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist Rob McAndrews and going straight into a ferocious rendition of Air and Lack Thereof, Blake seemed determined to take himself out of the spotlight as Assiter kept steady on complex beats and McAndrews proved himself an admirable multi-tasker. Still, as they went into I Never Learnt To Share and Blake triple-tracked his vocals and built his song from the ground up, it was clear that he was on a significantly higher plane.

Blake paused to talk a bit about new music, and it would have been completely forgivable at the time for someone to think about the dreaded sophomore slump. The Strokes, Interpol, Arctic Monkeys…it’s not exactly an uncommon phenomenon for the noisemakers and projected game-changers. But the first new song, listed on the setlist as We Are Going Down T’Pub crushed all doubt. Like much of Blake’s work, it explored the meaning and effects of repeated lyrics, but this time the backing was less focused on the beat than a dire organ line and unorthodox yet subtle guitar. The audience remained silent, entranced by the ominous, foreboding lyric, “who will go into the light? You and I, you and I...” Nobody in the audience had heard the song more than once, but there is no question that this (and many other new tracks) could easily hold up to The Wilhelm Scream as one of Blake’s most haunting and entrancing original compositions.

And yet, somehow, discovering the endless creativity of James Blake was not even the best part of the show. After the audience quieted down, no doubt giving a little extra applause for assuaging all doubt, Blake slid into Lindisfarne, and the amount of control, range, and fragility in Blake’s singing was nearly incomprehensible as audience members looked at one another, wide-eyed and astonished. In my gig-going career, it’s impossible to think of such a great display of grace under pressure. Lindisfarne I begins with nothing but slide-guitar and Blake’s voice; and the vocal peaks present throughout the two-part songs demand an incredible precision because of the quiet background. It’s easy to overlook on record; Blake is so well-learned in the electronic aspects of making music that one could easily assume a little studio work could touch up any vocal shortcomings. Watching it live, he made you look stupid for ever having thought that his best weapon is anything other than his beautiful voice.

Other fragile numbers like Limit To Your Love went over just as well, and choices like CMYK gave Blake a chance to alleviate some of the pressure and allowed his band-mates to showcase their own talents. And yet, no matter what he played, the band always seemed to have something better tucked away. If the complexity and atmosphere of CMYK put you in another world, the group went into a new cut that gave you your own place in heaven.  Indeed, that no two people seemed able to agree on a highlight at the end of the night says more for the consistency and precision of the band than this review ever could.

As Blake played the first notes of The Wilhelm Scream you could hardly hear over the shout of the crowd, but as he began to sing, you could have heard a pin drop, until suddenly, as if by some mysterious guiding force, the crowd began to whisper the lyrics right with him. Blake was visibly moved by the love he was receiving, and the audience was just as emotional throughout the performance.

Of course, it was far too soon for the evening to be over. Blake was talking extensively with audience members between songs, as if we were house guests and he just had a couple cool party tricks to show us. Of course, the show could have ended right then. The new songs, with their somber piano, fragility, and some of Blake’s best lyrics to date, there was already enough to talk about. But the band came back. They had to come back. And when they did, they brought with them one of the tightest and most energetic  Anti-War Dub performances conceivable before tearing into the new song Retrograde. Its massive textures are too difficult to describe, but if there were any holdouts on “album of the year” before this song, there probably weren’t after.

 Blake stood alone at his keyboard for perfect rendition of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, which would feel as if it were custom-made for Blake’s voice if it were not written before he was born. Once again, audience members were visibly moved, many shedding a few tears as a night packed with emotion came to an end. Blake did more than showcase new songs for the privileged attendees that night. He showed us incredible performance skills, rarely missing a vocal note and multi-tasking with two keyboards and multiple foot-pedals as if he had been doing it his whole life. He was letting us explore the depths of his songwriting and creativity, and with someone so determined to break down barriers and stretch the emotional limits of music, it’s fitting that words cannot describe it. Not even Blake’s own music can explain his talent and versatility. Not until LP two, anyway.