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James Blake

(8 May 2011: Rock and Roll Hotel — Washington, D.C.)

At his May 8th show at Washington, DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel, dubstepper-turned-singer-songwriter wunderkind James Blake seemed both comfortable with and humbled by his fairly explosive success. His US tour sold out in no time, and when he returns stateside from the UK for his next round of dates, he’ll no doubt be playing bigger venues — much, much bigger. He’ll fill those rooms, too, and not just with fans: in a live setting, Blake’s songs sound absolutely huge.

LA’s Active Child began the night with a blend of synth-pop ballads and thumping club-ready throwbacks, all anchored around frontman Pat Grossi’s liquid voice. Grossi’s vocals moved from easy falsetto to near baritone depending on the track, and he moved himself from behind the keys to behind a harp, using both instruments to create a haze of atmospherics around his rhythm section’s tightly-wound beats. If Grossi’s lyrics at times approached the saccharine, the low-end of his band’s mix saved their songs from lilting too sweetly.

James Blake knows how to hit that balance, as well. He moved through his set with a clear sense of momentum, kicking things off with a straight-forward version of “Unluck”. The track showed off the strengths of his accompanying band: a drummer who used live cymbals to augment a MIDI percussion pad, and a guitarist/sampler (Airhead, who has released a worthy split 10” with Blake). The addition of live musicians to help Blake recreate his studio trickery brought a sense of analog, human life to these songs, one that fits with the narrative of Blake moving further from his dubstep roots and into a radio-friendly, piano-led world. When the band dropped away for a solo cut, like “Give Me My Month”, audience members with closed eyes would’ve been hard-pressed to remember they were in the presence of one of the most lauded electronic musicians of the past few years — on his own and stripped of his gadgetry, Blake sounded like a top-flight pop songwriter. There’s a reason he’s covered Joni Mitchell in the past (and the wonderful new number, “E———T——-”, Blake played for the encore proved his Mitchell diet hasn’t abated).

Still, Blake’s strongest moments comes when he straddles the line between his synth-addled roots and his more restrained newer material. “I Never Learnt to Share” and “Lindisfarne” gave the set a stone-solid centerpiece. During the former, Blake relied on Airhead’s help to sample and loop his vocals, layer upon layer, until the room practically shimmered with a patchwork quilt of the singer’s uncompromisingly beautiful voice. On “Lindisfarne”, Blake used his Prophet ’08 synthesizer to recreate the vocoder effect of the song’s studio version, the nuances in the live take breathing extra energy into what may have been the night’s strongest moment. Blake shyly ducked behind the microphone during “Lindisfarne’s” lengthy bits of silence, confident in his abilities but never showy in their execution.

“To Care (Like You)” saw the bass notes on Blake’s keyboard cranked to chest-rattling volume. The night’s only real nod toward his earlier material, “Klavierwerke”, turned into a total knock-out — Blake and his band extended the mix, riffing off of one another and working the crowd into a lather. Blake himself seemed more energized when playing this track than on any other; one wonders why he doesn’t dip further back into his catalog, if that’s the case. After he finished with the one-two punch of (a similarly extended, jammed-out) “Limit to Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream”, the crowd seemed ready to drop at his feet. With good reason: it’s astonishing to think how quickly Blake has proved himself one of the most engaging and exciting voices in contemporary music. If he continues pushing himself at the level at which he’s been moving for the past year, who knows where he could take us next.

Give Me My Month
Tep and the Logic
I Never Learnt to Share
To Care (Like You)
Limit to Your Love
The Wilhelm Scream

Corey Beasley is a staff writer at PopMatters and Cokemachineglow. He graduated from George Mason University with an MFA in Creative Writing in 2011. He lives in Brooklyn. You can contact him at coreylaynebeasley_at_gmail_dotcom, but he will only read your promo email if you open by naming your favorite Fugazi song (it can't be "Waiting Room").

Tagged as: james blake
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