James Blake, 5/9/11
James Blake, 5/9/11
First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia
Wading through a sea of Zooey-Deschanel haircuts and poorly concealed brown-bagged 40s down the steps of the First Unitarian Church basement, it was here that scores of twenty-somethings had flocked to see the much-celebrated electronic artist James Blake making his formal debut in Philadelphia. On the heels of a handful of acclaimed E.P.s circulated in just the past few years, Blake established himself as a rising star of the dubstep scene before turning heads and emerging as a remarkably competent singer-songwriter on his self-titled debut album, released just this past February. While in the past predominately electronic artists/producers picking up the mic to do some soul-searching has oftentimes been met with mixed results – I’m looking at you, RJ-D2 – Blake surprised critics and fans alike by surfacing with a solid, original sound influenced as much by Jazz pianist Art Tatum or singer Sam Cooke than by fellow London peers Digital Mystikz.
While much needless postulating has been made of what current brand he owes allegiance to (is he dubstep, or *gasp* – post-dubstep?) and critics continue tirelessly quarreling over the authenticity and semantics of a genre that will undoubtedly become another stale footnote in a few years time (one need look no further than the most recent entry in an exhausting series of articles regarding the grime/dubstep Zeitgeist recently appearing on Pitchfork) it appears they’re habitually missing the forest for the trees, which is of course the music itself. After a rather unremarkable set by sole opener Active Child (imagine a Hyperdub-sounding Tears For Fears) it was then that Blake, sporting a new post-Bieber haircut and company swiftly took to the stage around ten to a chorus of cheers the bashful singer seemed a bit unaccustomed to. Wisely rounded out with a live drummer and guitarist, the group dove into album opener Unluck, bringing the crowd to silence with its slow, hushed chords before stirring to life with a disjointed beat and Blake’s startlingly soulful voice – not one you might necessarily come to expect from a cherubic 22-year old.
Electronic music is notoriously difficult to recreate in a live setting, which leads to some artists relying almost entirely on backing tracks. The three piece assembled tonight, however, showed no difficulty in pulling off the albums lush, elaborate arrangements, particularly when one considers the task of mixing keyboards, guitar, both live/sequenced drums and vocals drifting in and out of various manipulation together successfully. The only slip-up I noticed occurred on “I Never Learnt to Share”, when the songs sole haiku-like mantra ‘My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them’ seemed to drag on a bit too long, prompting a bemused Blake to ask ‘can I get some keyboard?’ before the sound was restored.
Throughout the course of the night the three-piece moved effortlessly through their short catalog, sticking mainly to the album cuts and a few oddities, alternating between numbers anchored by just piano and vocals to some of the more daring material like The Wilhem Scream, arguably his best track to date, juxtaposing a haunting melody over an ascending wall of scattered synths and shuddering beats. Feist cover and recent single Limit to Your Love began as a faithful enough, stripped-down approximation before descending into a thundering roar of bass (much louder than on record) that momentarily made one a little concerned for the structural integrity of their surroundings. Some of the more dancefloor leanings of To Care (Like You) or Klavierwerke (the sole EP addition finding it’s way into recent sets) seemed perhaps a little out of place within the atmosphere of a church basement, but the crowd took to them no less, bobbing along rhythmlessly and even erupting into a few drunken shouts of ‘Jimmy BLAKE!!’ during lulls. (Stay classy, Philadelphia) Even the two-part Lindisfarne, which began a bit unevenly with just the stark sound of Blake’s voice masked by a dated-sounding vocoder, emerged as one of the highlights of the evening with the addition of a folky strumming of guitar, whispered drum loop and Blake obliquely musing “Beacon, never fly too high.”
On stage, the singer came across friendly and warm, maybe even a little sheepish. He thanked the crowd repeatedly, introduced the band and expressed his gratitude that so many had come out to see him. It raises an interesting thought that for all the praise and elitist scrutinizing surrounding dubstep, so many of the groups now making up its very core (Burial, Mount Kimbie, ect) are at heart just humble, unpretentious individuals who simply enjoy making music. Blake remarked in recent interviews about the thrill of simply being able to perform for people, as well as expressing his distaste about being courted by a number of major labels with aims to re-record the album in studio with ‘real’ producers, which he regarded would have resulted in ‘a really shit album.’
The night also proved to be an interesting inside look at the very appeal and effectiveness of Hype – the show was initially scheduled at Johnny Brendas, sold out in a few days, got moved to a bigger venue, sold out again almost immediately. A special thanks goes out to veteran Philly organizers R5 Productions who wisely chose to make most tickets will-call only in order to eliminate scalping, which at these high-profile shows is really a huge thing, ensuring your reviewer only paid a modest $15 as opposed to, say, $135 on Stubhub. And all for an artist that had only released his debut album a staggering three months ago? Even in so called ‘underground’ scenes (or maybe especially) it becomes clear that we’re inexorably a culture still hungry for the Next Big Thing, not always with the best of results. (One recalls the comparable, almost beatlemania-like fervor at a similarly sold out show for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, a group whose disingenuous and feigned take on alt-country was – well, okay, they just sucked.) And while I surprised myself by enjoying the show immensely I couldn’t help but cringe slightly every time the characteristically-inebriated Philly crowd broke into whooping, overenthusiastic cheers every time a more recognizable song (i.e. one of the singles) was played. It’s worth remembering that hype doesn’t always work in your favor, however, and oftentimes the over-promotion, or saturation of something results in an inevitable backlash or heightened expectations that could potentially dog one’s career in years to come. Despite a solid showing tonight, the night capping off with an intimate rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You,’ it’s clear that this is just the beginning of Blake’s career, an artist still really finding his sound in an increasingly amnesiac music industry and only time will tell if he can live up to expectations and carve out a rich future for himself or whether his trajectory suffers the same fate of dozens of other buzz-worthy indie darlings discarded the moment initial interest wears down and the next big thing comes around.
Give Me My Month
Tep and the Logic
I Never Learnt to Share
To Care (Like You)
Limit to Your Love
The Wilhelm Scream
A Case of You (Joni Mitchell cover)