Live: James Blake Plays It Close To The Vest At Webster Hall


James Blake
Webster Hall
Wednesday, July 13

Better than: Hundreds of people crying about their exes, alone, in their bedrooms.

It took a handful of songs at last night’s James Blake show for the audience to get used to the musician’s intensely reserved demeanor. The man barely looked up from his keyboard, hovering in silence for a few seconds at the end of each track. While this resulted in a few heavy silences sweeping through Webster Hall, they were broken with waves of applause as soon as Blake sheepishly mumbled “Thank you” to signal the end of a piece. It was a tension-filled evening but that was to be expected: James Blake has always been about getting the listener to try and figure him out.

The lanky 22-year-old was obviously comfortable being shrouded in unrelenting melancholy behind his keyboards. From our vantage point (over the edge of a balcony to the left of the stage), we saw his impossibly long fingers intently pounding out the melodies and synth patterns while pedaling in reverb effects and cuing vocal loops. It wasn’t until the slow build of “Never Learnt To Share” that one could appreciate the construction of his tracks; he sang the hook—”My brother and my sister don’t speak to me/ But I don’t blame them”—then played back the recording of what he’d just done, complete with a dull roar that had been picked up by the mics as well. At each turn he added an additional harmony, repeating the act until the song dissolved into a blurry stomp of core-shaking bass and low moaning synths.

The lovelorn “Limit To Your Love”—a Feist cover that first put Blake onto the blogosphere’s radar—made an appearance as well, though last night’s rendition unfolded into a lingering dub groove. There were other hints of a dance party, too. “CMYK” included an extended jam session between Blake and his bandmates—featuring Ben Assister on drums—that touched on Baltimore club bass kicks, smoothly chopped R&B backlines, and tightly configured cymbal patterns before nearly exploding into a glitchy house track. As often happens with Blake, none of it ever quite reached the surface—the audience was left teetering on climax before being lulled back into a mysteriously gratifying, tension-filled submission. Blake’s ability to turn a track from a nerve-wrecking mess into a lullaby is one of his strongest assets.

For the encore, Blake performed a version of “Wilhelm Scream” that honored the original and added Rob McAndrews on guitar; he also played a new track that, he warned the crowd, was “a work in progress.” It was a ballad that required only the use of his piano and no vocal effects and beat manipulations (for now); it highlighted the young Brit’s voice in a way that wasn’t any less haunting than the rumbling bass or ghostly echoes that had preceded it. A hook of “None of us are telling the truth/ Tell me, are you with me?” rang through the now-silent venue while, up in the rafters, we wondered who exactly broke James Blake’s heart and if he was ever going to get over it.

Critical bias: There was a time when my iPod had a constant rotation of James Blake, Warpaint, and Bon Iver. (We’ve all been there, buddy.)

Overheard: Q: “How do I get James Blake to be my boyfriend? A: “Tell him you have a cool hall with a cool ghost in it. And then see if he wants to sing to it.”

Give Me My Month
I Never Learnt To Share
To Care Like You
Limit To Your Love
Wilhelm Scream