When it comes to James Blake’s music, it has been an extremely slow journey towards appreciation for me, which might just be an appropriate pace given his style of music. Arguably one of the most hyped artists of the last year, his ACL performance would be my third time seeing him live and with each successive performance, I am drawn in ever closer. While the time of day and venue were least appropriate to showcase his music, the performance still managed to captivate. With Blake behind the keyboards, he was backed by a live drummer, playing on electronic drums with real cymbals, and a guitarist. The set consisting of nearly all the tracks from this year’s self-titled, major label, debut.
The music, which heavily combines elements of dub-step and R&B, among other qualities, is extremely smooth with a fragile, effervescent quality. While its fragility is one of the strongest qualities to the music, it doesn’t make it an easy listen for a festival audience. The music perpetually feels on the brink, with a sense it could be swallowed up at any moment. Even the smallest level of uninterested conversation could shatter the mood. Not to mention, there is really no “performance” occurring on stage to draw casual onlookers. With that said, the music is delivered with such sharp precision and poignancy that it becomes hypnotic and together the band manages to create a unique sense of intimacy, even in an open festival setting. As Blake repeatedly sings, “My bother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them”, from the track “I Never Learnt to Share”, one would have to be made of stone to not feel some tinge of emotion.
It would be hard to imagine a more suitable setting for a Kurt Vile show. Under a beaming Texas sun, he performed on one of the festival’s smaller stages, which traded out the generic black sheet backdrop for a more natural backdrop of trees and boulders. When heard on record, his music may not always evoke a sunny summer day, but in the live setting the music becomes a whole other animal. Acoustic numbers and bare arrangements are given a fuller, electric makeover and songs which normally feel a bit desperate and lonely now seem perfectly at home, out in the open, amongst the throngs of festival goers. The whole performance, from the music straight on down to his long wavy locks, could easily be inserted into a late 1970’s Texxas Jam lineup without skipping a beat. The Philadelphia born singer-songwriter remains low key on stage, adding very little fanfare to his performance, aside from some gorgeous, shimmering guitar. In terms of set highlights, look no further than “Jesus Saves” from his most recent release, Smoke Ring for My Halo. The rambling, free flowing number could have been the soundtrack to the entire weekend.
* * *
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.